Aid workers are bracing for a long-feared exodus of civilians from jihadist-held Mosul after Iraqi forces said they had entered the city, a relief group said on Wednesday.
Thousands of people have already been displaced by fighting around Mosul since Iraq launched a massive operation on October 17 to retake the city from the Islamic State group.
But the number could increase sharply in the coming days as fighting intensifies following the army’s announcement that elite troops had penetrated the built-up area on Tuesday.
“We are now bracing ourselves for the worst. The lives of 1.2 million civilians are in grave danger, and the future of all of Iraq is now in the balance,” the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Iraq director, Wolfgang Gressmann, said in a statement.
“People in and around Mosul have lived for almost two and a half years in a relentless, terrifying nightmare. We are now all responsible to put an end to it,” Gressmann said.
Conditions have already been dire for civilians since the drive on Mosul began.
“In the last weeks since the final Mosul operation started, we’ve seen thousands forced to flee their homes, families separated, many civilians injured and others killed by snipers or by explosive devices,” Gressmann said.
More than 20,000 people have been displaced since the offensive began, the International Organisation for Migration said on Wednesday.
The United Nations says it has received reports of IS seizing tens of thousands of civilians for possible use as human shields in areas it holds.
There have also been reports of IS executing nearly 300 people in the Mosul area since October 25, the UN says.