IRAQ: US air strikes isolate Baqubah villagers
A map of Iraq highlighting Diyala province and Baqubah city.
BAQUBAH, 16 January 2007 (IRIN) - Hundreds of people have been trying to flee the eastern Iraqi province of Diyala, close to the Iraqi-Iranian border, following a recent offensive by US and Iraqi troops in the area. Although the offensive has ended, scores of families in rural villages were said to be hiding in their houses for fear that air strikes might start again.
“During the past week, US forces have been attacking rural areas near Baqubah trying to flush out insurgents. Their air strikes have killed about 14 civilians and led to the capture of dozens of insurgents. But these attacks have caused many people to suffer because of lack of assistance and difficulties in getting to health centres,” said Salah Ahmed, media officer for Diyala provincial council.
The most affected areas are villages east of Baqubah, a city some 40km west of the Iraqi-Iranian border.
Very few families managed to leave the area before the attacks started on 5 January. The closures of entry and exit points in the vicinity forced hundreds of families to stay inside their homes.
“We were informed [by locals and volunteers] that approximately 110 families were without water and food supplies because there was no prior announcement about the offensive and those families were either unprepared or could not leave the area,” Ahmed said.
“Theoretically, the offensive has ended but many areas near the villages are still occupied by US and Iraqi troops who are preventing people from leaving their homes. Officials there have told us that [some] houses have been destroyed with people in them. Most of these were in rural areas,” he added.
US military officers in Baghdad said there were no civilian causalities as a result of this military operation and that the offensive had been a success with the capture of about 50 insurgents who they said had taken refuge in the area. They also said that locals were prevented from leaving their homes only during the offensive and that this was for their own security.
According to the Baghdad-based Institute of Peace and Development in Iraq (IPDI), US troops and the Iraqi army prevented NGOs from getting close to the rural areas near Baqubah to serve those who had urgent needs.
“We got through on a mobile phone to a family in that area who claimed that people are still afraid to go out of their houses. Some communities are in urgent need of medical assistance for their children and there are possibly injured people but we cannot confirm that unless we can get into these areas. But the US military has said that there were no [civilian] victims,” Barak Shami, spokesperson for IPDI, said.
“Volunteers from many local NGOs and the Iraq Red Crescent are trying to help and offer their assistance but with the security situation it is getting difficult to get near the place where the offensive was being carried out,” Shami added.
The Iraqi Ministry of Defence said that this offensive was part of a new plan to combat and capture insurgents in hot spots countrywide. The ministry said Diyala province had the second highest number of insurgents after Baghdad.
“We are succeeding in our operations. We have no reports of civilian casualties and dozens of insurgents have already been captured. This is another success in the partnership between US forces and the Iraqi military in combating terrorism in Iraq,” said Lt Col Khalid Abbas al-Nahiri, a senior official in the Ministry of Defence who also took part in the offensive.