NEW DELHI: Some 20,700 people have been displaced since the operation to liberate the Iraqi city of Mosul from the Islamic State started on 17 October, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said, estimating that 9,700 of them are children in urgent need of assistance. Meanwhile, fighting shows no end in sight as Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Baghdadi urged supporters not to retreat and to continue fighting.

“I met mothers and children who were so relieved to have come out alive; it was clear that they had gone through so much,” said Pernille Ironside, UNICEF’s Chief of Field Operations in Iraq, following a visit to Nargizlia screening site.

(Internally displaced persons flee to Debaga camp in Erbil Governorate, northern Iraq, as Mosul assault begins. Photo: UNHCR/Ivor Prickett)

The Iraqi Government and its international partners are fighting to retake Mosul from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) while the UN agencies and its partners are stepping up humanitarian assistance for the displaced.

Many of the new arrivals come in dusty, exhausted and uncertain about what is going to happen next. Some are even barefoot. UNICEF reaches out to the families, checking on the condition of their children and finding out if any of them are missing.

(UNICEF and partner WEO unload water and hygiene kits in Al Houd, Ninewa Governorate, located south of Mosul, which was retaken by Iraqi security forces on 17 October 2016. Photo: UNICEF/UN036544/Aree Dilshad/WEO)

“As the situation continues to unfold, it is important that we remain nimble and that we adapt our response to best assist children and families who have been through so much over these past years,” Ironside said.

Upon arrival, families receive clean drinking water and snacks that include a nutritional supplement for children. Children 6 months to 15 years old are immediately immunized against polio and measles – many of them for the first time in two years – by a UNICEF-supported local government team. Families spend up to half a day in screening sites before being transferred to an emergency camp where they are assigned shelter.

As the humanitarian situation escalates, Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Baghdadi has purportedly released a tape urging supporters not to retreat as Iraqi forces advance on the city of Mosul. In the recording, Baghdadi called on his fighters to obey their leaders, warned Iraqi Sunnis of the consequences of turning against the Islamic State and appealed to the group’s far-flung outposts to stay loyal.

The Citizen has not independently confirmed the authenticity of the recording. The time Baghdadi reportedly spoke publicly was in December 2015.

Meanwhile, fighting continues, with early reports suggesting that the Iraqi army is meeting with success in its mission. Anadolu news agency reports that 37 Islamic State militants were killed today in the Mosul operation.

(Cover photo: A boy who fled a village south of Mosul, Iraq, receives a measles vaccination from a UNICEF-supported government health worker at an aid distribution in Ibrahim Khalil. Photo: UNICEF/Lindsay Mackenzie)

(With input from UN News Centre)