Militants have killed scores of people and taken tens of thousands to use as human shields in the Mosul area, the United Nations said Friday, as Iraqi forces temporarily halted their advance on the city.

Thousands of people have fled from areas surrounding Mosul, prompting a warning of “massive displacement” when fighting starts inside the Daesh militant group’s last major Iraqi urban stronghold.

Daesh’s “depraved, cowardly strategy is to attempt to use the presence of civilians to render certain points, areas or military forces immune from military operations”, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a statement.

The militants are “effectively using tens of thousands of women, men and children as human shields”, he said.

The UN human rights office said that credible reports indicate Daesh has forced tens of thousands of people from their homes and forcibly taken civilians into Mosul, killing those who resist or who were previously members of Iraqi security forces.

The population of Hamam al-Alil, a Daesh-held area south of Mosul that is an upcoming target for Iraqi forces, has reportedly nearly trebled, it said.

Daesh reportedly shot dead 232 people in a single day on Wednesday and killed 24 the previous day, the rights office said.

The killings, which the UN said have been “corroborated to the extent possible”, are just the latest in a long list of atrocities committed by the militants since they overran swathes of Iraq in 2014.

‘Pausing and repositioning’

The UN report came as Iraqi forces were temporarily halting their advance on Mosul for a period which the US-led anti-Daesh coalition said was expected to last “a couple of days”.

“They are pausing and repositioning, refitting and doing some back clearing,” coalition spokesman Colonel John Dorrian told Pentagon reporters via videoconference.

“We think it will just be a couple of days and then we are back on the march toward Mosul,” he said, adding that Iraqi forces were between 10-20 kilometres (six to 12 miles) from the city.

Since the Mosul offensive began last week, the coalition has employed nearly 2,500 bombs, missiles, shells and guided rockets, he said.

An Iraqi military statement, apparently issued in response to Dorrian’s remarks on the halt, said that “military operations are continuing” and proceeding on schedule.

As Iraqi forces have closed in on Mosul from the north, east and south, growing numbers of civilians have fled Daesh-held areas and the impending fighting in territory the militants control.

The International Organization for Migration said that as of Friday, 16,566 people had been displaced since the operation began on October 17, the vast majority in the Mosul region.

“We’ve seen… quite a dramatic increase in the numbers in the last few days, and they are now going into the newly set up camps,” Karl Schembri of the Norwegian Refugee Council told AFP.

“This is already worrying because they haven’t yet entered the city… when that happens, it’s going to be quite massive displacement,” he said.

Kurdish independence issue

The potential for a humanitarian crisis as tens of thousands of civilians are forced into camps with winter looming is just one of a raft of issues that have complicated military planning for the recapture of Mosul.

Thousands of Kurdish peshmerga fighters are taking part in the operation alongside Iraqi government troops, and Kurdish leaders have made clear that they will expect payback once it has been successfully completed.

The Kurds, who have expanded the territory under their control far beyond the boundaries of their longstanding autonomous region in the north, say their hopes of a new Iraq have been dashed and that they will now explore a separate future.

“As soon as Mosul is liberated, we will meet with our partners in Baghdad and talk about our independence,” the region’s prime minister Nechirvan Barzani told Germany’s Bild newspaper.

But for now, the battle for Mosul is far from over, and most of the advancing forces are still some distance from the city limits.

The head of US military operations in the Middle East, General Joseph Votel, said the militants were suffering heavy losses.

“Just in the operations over the last week and a half associated with Mosul, we estimate they’ve probably killed about 800 to 900 Daesh fighters,” Votel told AFP in an interview.

Washington estimates there are between 3,500 and 5,000 Daesh fighters in Mosul and as many as 2,000 more in the wider area.

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