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IS shooting civilians who flee Fallujah

Meanwhile, Iraqi forces found a mass grave of 400 bodies near Fallujah
As many as 50,000 civilians are stuck in Fallujah's centre, being used as human shields by IS (AFP)

The Islamic State (IS) group is shooting and killing civilians who try to flee Fallujah, a city besieged by Iraqi forces, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) said on Sunday.

"Reports from families that NRC has been in touch with describe that civilians trying to cross the Euphrates River in order to flee the fighting are being targeted by armed opposition groups," the organisation said in a statement.

NRC runs camps in the town of Amriyat al-Fallujah to which most of the civilians who have fled areas around the besieged bastion are being housed.

"An unidentified number of civilians have been shot and killed trying to cross the river," NRC said.

One of the only ways for civilians trying to leave the centre of Fallujah, which is littered with mines and roadside bombs, is to sneak out by river.

Most of those who have already reached the camps had lived in Fallujah’s outlying areas. As many as 50,000 civilians are stuck in the city’s centre, being used as human shields by IS.

Fallujah is a Sunni city that lies only 50 kilometres west of Baghdad and is one of IS's most emblematic bastions.

"Our biggest fears are now tragically confirmed with civilians being directly targeted while trying to flee to safety," NRC country director Nasr Muflahi said.

"This is the worst that we feared would happen to innocent men, women and children who have had to leave everything behind in order to save their lives," he said.

The aid group said that around 18,000 civilians have reached displacement camps since Iraqi forces two weeks ago began an operation to retake Fallujah.

Mass grave found

Meanwhile, Iraqi forces involved in operations to retake the city of Fallujah on Sunday found a mass grave believed to contain 400 bodies, a provincial official and a senior officer said. 

A colonel in the police of Anbar, where Fallujah is located, said the mass burial site was discovered in the town of Saqlawiya, northwest of Fallujah in the Euphrates Valley.

"The security forces of the federal police, the army and the Hashed al-Shaabi found a mass grave in the Shuhada neighbourhood during a mine clearing operation," he said.

"The mass grave contains about 400 bodies of members of the military. There are also some civilians," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorised to talk to the press.

The colonel said most of the victims appeared to have been shot in the head.

"The security forces have opened the mass grave and started transferring the bodies for identification," he said.

The bodies are believed to belong mostly to Iraqi soldiers who were massacred by the Islamic State group in a series of devastating attacks on army bases in the area.

"The organisation [IS] executed many members of the military, as well as civilians, in this area in late 2014 and early 2015," he said.

Rajeh Barakat, a member of the Anbar provincial council, confirmed the discovery.

"The mass grave also includes civilians executed by Daesh [IS] on various charges such as spying or breaking the organisation's rules, " he said.

Allegations of abuse

Also on Sunday, the Iraqi government said it will investigate allegations of abuses by security forces in the course of the operation to retake the IS-held city of Fallujah.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has ordered the creation of a human rights committee to examine "any violation to the instructions on the protection of civilians," Saad al-Hadithi said in a televised briefing.

He said Abadi had issued "strict orders" for prosecutions to take place in the event of any abuses.

Officials including Parliament Speaker Salim al-Juburi have expressed concern over reports of abuses committed by the forces involved in the operation to recapture Fallujah.

Juburi spoke on Thursday of "information indicating that some violations were carried out by some members of the federal police and some volunteers against civilians".

The statement did not provide details on the alleged abuses, but urged Abadi to "look into these acts and deal with them in a strict and expeditious way".