More than 900 civilians have fled the Iraqi city of Mosul across the border into Syria, the United Nations said Wednesday as U.S.-backed Iraqi forces continued to advance on the ISIS stronghold.
A total of 912 people from the Iraqi city are at Al Hol, a U.N.-operated camp in Syria, a spokesman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees told NBC News. Local security is keeping the group separate from other refugees at the camp, the agency said.
It is the first major group of civilians to have fled Mosul since a military campaign began early Monday to retake the city from ISIS, which took control of Mosul 2½ years ago when the Iraqi army collapsed.
Jessem Al-Atlyah, Iraq's deputy minister of migration and displacement, said 1,200 people had left the city's combat areas since since Monday.
"The number of refugees is going to increase in the coming days because Iraqi forces are advancing towards areas that are close to Mosul," said Al-Atlyah, adding that the Migration and Displacement Ministry had set up refugee camps in various areas with a total of 50,000 tents.
"We are working to increase this number of tents in the coming days," he said.
So far, the military offensive is making steady progress. Iraqi federal police said forces had defused improvised explosive devices in areas liberated south of Mosul. Eighteen villages have been liberated and cleared, federal police said.
Federal police are surrounding the Al-Shura district south of the city, according a spokesman for the joint operations command, while Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi fighters are circling the Hamdaniyah area to the east.
Officials are optimistic that the offensive will drive ISIS out of its Iraq stronghold, effectively dismantling the self-declared caliphate. ISIS has 5,000 to 6,000 fighters defending Mosul, the head of Iraq's special forces, Lt. Gen. Talib Shaghati, said Wednesday.
But humanitarian groups remain concerned for the more than 1 million people who are still in the city. The Associated Press reported Wednesday that Iraqi and Kurdish authorities had nearly finished work on a refugee camp that can receive about 5,000 families to the east, a sign of the massive number of people expected to flee their homes.
"We are very worried about the safety of innocent civilians in Mosul city," Su'ad Jarbawi, Iraq country director for Mercy Corps, a humanitarian aid agency, said in a statement. "They will be in the middle of the battleground, and this is only the beginning of a larger humanitarian crisis."
Mercy Corps is calling on the United States to authorize $325 million in emergency supplemental funding to support Iraqi families.