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Fighting Resumes In Anbar As Thousands Of Iraqis Flee Homes

Fighting has intensified in the central Iraqi city of Ramadi as tens of thousands of people have fled their homes in restive Anbar Province.

RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reports explosions and heavy shelling in Ramadi on January 24 after two days of relative calm as Iraqi security forces and their Sunni tribesmen allies have been battling Al-Qaeda-linked militants and other antigovernment forces for nearly a month.

The fighting was mainly in southern Ramadi -- in Al-Humaira and Al-Tash -- and in the surrounding districts of Al-Andalus, Al-Malab, and Al-Thubbat.

Gunmen holed up in residential homes there were targeted by aerial bombardment from helicopters and planes.

RFI reports some civilians were caught in the crossfire and are among the casualties. It added that some of the insurgents were using civilians as human shields.

Casualties were also reported in the village of Al-Bu Farraj, close to Ramadi, and in other parts of the Al-Jazeera administrative district.

The nearby city of Fallujah is encircled by Iraqi Army forces and intermittent fighting is reported, mainly in the northeastern part of the city, especially the Al-Askari district.

Four civilians were reported killed and eight injured in Fallujah, RFI reports.

The Iraqi ground forces commander in Anbar, Ali Zaydan, issued a statement Thursday saying that Iraqi military forces were prepared to attack Fallujah.

Local officials in Ramadi and Fallujah have strongly urged the army not to enter their cities but rather to let police and local tribesmen fight the insurgents and expel them.

Meanwhile, thousands of people continue to leave the two cities.

Peter Kessler, the spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said more than 140,000 people in Anbar have been displaced since the militants and other antigovernment forces took parts of Ramadi and control of Fallujah on December 30.

Kessler said 65,000 people have left just in the past week and that it is the largest number of displaced people in Iraq since the sectarian violence of 2006-08.

He added that thousands of people have fled to Baghdad, which is only about 50 kilometers from Fallujah and less than 100 kilometers from Ramadi.

With reporting by AFP