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HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: Iraqi government troops allied with Kurdish forces, known as the Peshmerga, launched a new offensive today on towns and villages around Mosul, the country’s second largest city. The Kurdish forces say they’ve advanced to within five miles of Mosul, gaining control of villages and highways along the way. The long-planned offensive, which began last week, involves more than 25,000 Iraqi forces as well as U.S.-led coalition aircraft and advisers.
The battle for Mosul presents a challenge, to say the least, for the civilians still living in a city controlled by ISIS for the past two years. The United Nations warns as many as a million residents could be displaced during the battle.
To discuss these humanitarian concerns, I’m joined via Skype from Baghdad by Katharina Ritz, the head of Iraq delegation for the International Red Cross.
Thanks for joining us.
From your position now, what are the largest source of concern for you on a humanitarian front?
KATHARINA RITZ, INTERNATIONAL RED CROSS: The largest concern at this stage is obviously it’s very challenging to reach people, that people are still — most of the people are still in cities or in the city centers. We talk maybe about around 5,000 families or persons who could leave from the villages. But they are not yet at the outskirts.
So, there are different challenges. We know there is displacement going on. There is sulfur smoke, which is toxic up to a certain extent. This also affects already the residents of the villages which are around, or people displaced to these camps in the area of Qayyarah, which makes everything even additional challenging, because also we have to look at the safety of our staff. But still try to dispatch medical supplies to this area which are now under an additional stress.
SREENIVASAN: Are there any safety corridors or any avenues where civilians could get out as the troops advance closer and closer to their cities?
RITZ: Most of the places have not seen massive displacement of civilians. But generally they try, or they announced to try to have a safe passage open. How this is going to work out when you talk about thousands of civilians, we have to see. I think it’s not yet very clear. They are definitely making plans of opening safe passages for civilians to leave.
SREENIVASAN: How quickly after the city is under the control of Iraqi forces can humanitarian aid agencies get in there and try to either treat the wounded or evacuate who needs to be?
RITZ: Well, we have a little bit of experience with the situation that happened in Anbar, in Ramadi and Fallujah. I think it’s very difficult just to think that we can go quickly inside, because we do expect there might be heavy mines, contamination of mines or booby traps or maybe still some security concern for the humanitarian workers. So, I think the first thing preferably is to clear and that the people we can assist might not be in front of the front lines.
SREENIVASAN: Finally, what’s the most immediate oppressing concern? As a city gets cut off like this, what happens to water or access to food or certainly medicine when there’s not any goods or services coming in and out?
RITZ: If it’s besieging or an isolation over a long period, this might put lots of pressures on the civilians which we have seen also in Fallujah. But I think that the major concern is then to get access to the people, to evacuate the wounded and get treatment. And I think if nobody works any more in the hospitals or can go safely to a health structure, and then it is a real concern and I think it’s — people will lose life just because they cannot access hospitals and health structures.
SREENIVASAN: All right. Katharina Ritz from the International Red Cross, joining us live via Skype from Baghdad today — thanks so much.
RITZ: Thank you very so much. Thanks.