Battles intensify near city, as aid groups warn of human catastrophe unfolding with 50,000 people trapped by fighting.
Iraqi forces are facing tough resistance on the outskirts of Fallujah, as they attempt to retake the key city held by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS group), where there are mounting fears for more than 50,000 civilians trapped there.
Lieutenant-General Abdelwahab al-Saadi, the commander of the operation, said ISIL fighters launched a fierce counter-attack on Naimiyah, a suburb south of Fallujah early on Tuesday before the armed group was repelled.
"There were around 100 fighters involved, they came at us heavily armed but did not use car bombs or suicide bombers," he told the AFP news agency.
Saadi said Iraqi forces, which also include police and army units, were eventually able to repel the attack, killing 75 ISIL fighters.
He did not give a figure for losses on the pro-government side, however sources say that at least 15 Iraqi security forces and members of allied Shia militias had been killed.
Fallujah, 50km west of Baghdad, is one of the two remaining major Iraqi cities still in ISIL hands, the other being Iraq's second-largest city Mosul.
Death at every step
The week-old operation has come at a human cost, rights groups said, with thousands of civilians trapped between ISIL fighters and the advancing Iraqi army and allied Shia militia.
Some 50,000 people were still stuck in the centre of Fallujah on Tuesday, struggling with dwindling water and food supplies. The UN said it had reports of people starving to death and others and being killed for refusing to fight for ISIL.
"Those who make the decision of trying to flee know that at every step they might find death," Bruno Geddo, the UN refugee agency's representative in Iraq, said.
"If they manage to reach a safe corridor the Iraqi army can evacuate them, however, if they are caught - they will be executed. To reach the safe area is extremely risky and dangerous."
Geddo also said that food, medicine and fuel prices had "skyrocketed," with many basic goods out of reach for ordinary Iraqis.
"Food is completely unaffordable and the price of [50kg] flour has sky-rocketed to more than $700. People are now eating rotten dates and yoghurt to survive," he said.
A Fallujah resident told the AFP news agency by telephone that many civilians were fearful of ISIL might do as fighting intensified.
"Their treatment of the people is getting worse and worse every day. There is a feeling of panic among them it seems,| the resident who gave his name as Abu Mohammed al-Dulaimi said.
"Daesh is angry because they don't feel supported and they have been seen insulting people on the streets, shouting things like: 'Cowards, you are not with us'," he said, using an Arabic acronym for ISIL.
"Yesterday, they were rounding up young men from several parts of the city - we think maybe around 100 of them - and taking them to an unknown location," he said.
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|Allen L. Jasson|