Thousands of Iraqis being used as human shields near Mosul

QAYARA, Iraq (AP) — For three months, as Islamic State militants ranged across farms and villages south of Mosul, they took Sayid Naheer, his wife and eight children with them. The family was among tens of thousands of people that the U.N. says have been rounded up to be used as human shields.

Their forced march covered more than 12 miles, stopping in villages for days or weeks. When Naheer’s family finally escaped this week after an air raid and made it to a government checkpoint near the front lines, the children’s faces were caked with dust and their feet had been rubbed raw by their plastic sandals.

The U.N. human rights office said Friday that the tens of thousands of civilians were in the town of Hamam al-Alil, south of Mosul, doubling its population to an estimated 60,000.

The Associated Press reported earlier this week that IS militants had gone door to door in villages south of Mosul, ordering hundreds of people at gunpoint to march north into the city, the largest under their control. Mosul is the focus of a massive Iraqi military offensive launched Oct. 17 against the extremists.

“They said, ‘the army is coming, and they will kill you and rape your women, so you must come with us,’ “ Naheer said of the IS militants. He and his family were held in abandoned homes, and were allowed to bring their sheep along for food.

Then, on Thursday, a volley of airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition pounded the fighters’ positions. “They all just fled, ran away and left us,” he said.

There was no way to independently confirm the account, but it tracks with those given by other witnesses.