UN airlifts to aid 500,000 Iraq refugees

The United Nations refugee agency yesterday revealed it would launch a major aid operation to get supplies to more than half a million people displaced by fighting in northern Iraq.

A girl who fled northern Iraq receives aid at a mosque near Basra. She is among 1.2 million Iraqis displaced by war. Picture: Reuters

A four-day airlift of tents and other aid will begin today to the Kurdish city of Irbil in northern Iraq from Aqaba in Jordan, followed by road convoys from Turkey and Jordan and sea shipments from Dubai via Iran over the next ten days, said UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards.

“This is a very, very significant aid push and certainly one of the largest I can recall in quite a while,” he told a news briefing in Geneva. “This is a major humanitarian crisis and disaster. It continues to affect many people.”

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The UNHCR estimates that 1.2 million have fled their homes across Iraq this year.

About 200,000 have settled in Iraq’s Kurdistan region since August when the city of Sinjar and neighbouring areas were seized by Islamic State (IS) militants, said the UNHCR.

At least 11,000 from the Yazidi minority have taken shelter inside Iraq’s war-torn neighbour Syria, and about 300 more were crossing the Peshkabour border every day, the UNHCR said.

“The fact you see people fleeing via Syria to safety speaks to how desperate the situation is, particularly in Sinjar in the last few days,” said Mr Edwards.

The initial aid shipments will contain 3,300 tents and 20,000 plastic sheets for shelter, 18,500 kitchen sets and 16,500 jerry cans, he added. The aid effort is backed by Saudi Arabia, the UK, the United States and other donors.

The UN’s World Food Programme said it has already served more than a million meals to displaced people in the past two weeks.

Over the weekend, the UN agency for children, Unicef, stepped up aid efforts for minority Yazidi refugees in northern Iraq.

Unicef representative Marzio Babille said it was one of the largest humanitarian responses he had seen in 50 years.

In Dohuk, 80,000 refugees had arrived in only ten days, fleeing from IS fighters.

The major aid operation comes as western powers step up efforts to stem the IS advance by supporting Kurdish and Iraqi government forces.

US president Barack Obama said IS militants were “a threat to all Iraqis and the entire region”. Earlier this week Mr Obama said the Mosul Dam in northern Iraq had been recaptured by Kurdish forces from IS fighters.

Mr Obama said the US helped in the operation with air strikes targeting IS positions around the dam, Iraq’s largest.

He said the move was a “major step forward”, and the US had begun a long-term strategy to defeat the militants, including the building of a humanitarian “international coalition” in response to the refugee crisis.

The statement followed Iraqi claims the dam had been “fully cleansed”, but IS said it was still in control.

Recapturing the dam has been a key focus of the last few days as warnings came of catastrophic ramifications if the dam were to fail under IS militants unequipped to carry out essential maintenance work.

According to US assessments the dam has the potential to cause severe flooding in Mosul, and possibly even affect areas as far south as Baghdad.

A short distance to the south-west of the dam, gunfire and explosives have been sending smoke into the sky as Kurdish forces try to push their front lines further into the low hills nearby, said Mr Obama.

US bombers, fighter jets and drones carried out 25 air strikes at the weekend and 15 on Monday to help Kurdish and Iraqi forces on the ground secure the Mosul dam.