Displaced persons fleeing from Islamic State (IS) militants in the Iraqi city of Ramadi were reportedly made to pay hundreds of dollars to take their families across the Euphrates River and enter Baghdad.
According to an April 23 report by pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Alawsat, thousands of displaced persons crossed the Bzabz Bridge -- a series of pontoons across the Euphrates River, about 65 kilometers west of Baghdad -- last week. These displaced families were fleeing the fierce fighting between IS gunmen and Iraqi tribal and security forces in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province. To reach safety in Baghdad, they had to cross the Bzabz, which marks the boundary between Anbar and the Iraqi capital.
The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, said on April 21 that it was concerned about the challenges faced by Iraqi civilians fleeing the violence in Ramadi, including at the Bzabz Bridge. UNHCR said that those who had reached the bridge had walked for kilometers without food and water and were exhausted.
Around 54,000 people fled to Baghdad, according to UNHCR, while 15,000 went to Sulaymaniyah in Iraq's Kurdistan region, 2,100 went to Babylon, and another 900 went to Diyala.
According to Asharq Alawsat, the exhausted displaced persons had been exploited by people offering to carry them across the bridge on wooden carts -- for the sum of about $8 per person per kilometer. The security forces were facilitating such abuses, the newspaper found.
One displaced Ramadi resident, Saadi al-Naimi, 66, told Asharq Alawsat that his family had fled Ramadi on foot after IS gunmen entered their neighborhood.
Naimi and his fellow travelers trekked through the desert to reach the Bzabz Bridge. He recalls how he was "shocked" when he witnessed abuses from people affiliated to the security services. Some people were being asked to pay $700 per person in order to be allowed to cross the bridge and enter Baghdad, Naimi said.
It was "as if we were strangers in our land... and they imposed an entry fee on us, they did not see the fatigue on our faces," Naimi said.
Anbar Provincial Council Chairman Sabah Karhout said that council members were working with officials in Baghdad to prevent further abuses against displaced persons. Karhout admitted that there had been "many errors" made by some security-service personnel.
Karhout also addressed the issue of people fleeing Ramadi being asked to provide a sponsor in Baghdad to vouch for them before they were allowed access to the city.
The Anbar Provincial Council chairman said that the "sponsor system" had been put in place because security authorities in the capital feared that IS militants could infiltrate into Baghdad with displaced families.
Dismantling Booby Traps In Ramadi
Iraqi security forces have reported fresh advances against IS militants in Ramadi.
Pro-government forces said on April 23 that they had managed to take control of two districts in the center of the city, and that they had stopped an assault against the government complex in the downtown area.
Security forces also managed to penetrate into residential districts in the west of the city, amid troop reinforcements from Baghdad, according to RFE/RL's correspondent in Iraq.
As has been the case in other urban areas in Iraq and Syria into which IS militants have invaded, the gunmen have left behind a great number of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and booby traps, including in civilian homes.
Iraq's Interior Ministry said on April 24 that security forces had managed to dismantle booby traps in 40 homes as well as dismantling 75 IEDs.
Security forces have also pushed militants out of the area between the hospital and the Al-Hauz Bridge in the center of the city, according to Iraqi media reports.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk