69 killed in Iraq violence, 17 Indians evacuated
Baghdad/New Delhi: At least 69 people were killed and 144 injured in fierce clashes on Tuesday between Iraqi security forces and Sunni militant groups even as 17 more Indians were evacuated from the conflict-ridden country.
A provincial police source, requesting anonymity, put the toll at 69 with 144 others being wounded after air strikes on Tuesday, carried out by unidentified aircraft on two Iraqi cities in Anbar province, Xinhua reported.
The source said a plane bombed the area near the local government of Rutba city, where many civilian cars were queuing outside a fuel station, leaving some 50 people dead and 122 wounded.
Earlier, the death of 64 militants was reported in fierce clashes between Iraqi security forces and Sunni militant groups.
In Salahudin province, the security forces with air support fought back several attacks by militants who tried to take control of the oil refinery near Baiji city, some 200 km from Baghdad, Lt. Gen. Qassim Atta and security spokesperson of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said at a news conference in Baghdad.
"Baiji refinery is under full control of the Iraqi security forces," Atta said.
A provincial security source said that air strikes during the day on militant posts around the refinery and Baiji killed up to 17 people.
There were conflicting reports about who were controlling the refinery since late Monday. Provincial police source and media reports said that the militants captured the refinery overnight after an agreement with the troops who were allowed to leave the their posts unarmed peacefully.
Atta, however, rubbished such reports, saying that the refinery was under security forces' control.
Earlier, insurgent groups, including those linked to the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), an Al Qaeda offshoot, overran Baiji as well as large parts of the Sunni-dominated Salahudin province, including its capital Tikrit, some 170 km from Baghdad.
In Iraq's Diyala province, battles continued in and around Udheim city, as the troops carried out several attacks on the Sunni militants posts from three directions on the city, killing 21 militants, Atta said.
In Anbar province, Atta said the security forces attacked militant groups in Saqlawiyah town, just north of the militant-seized Fallujah city, some 50 km from Baghdad, killing 24 gunmen and destroying their vehicles.
Meanwhile, Atta confirmed that the border guards and other security forces were still seizing the border crossing points of Triebil with Jordan and al-Walid crossing point with Syria after they repelled attacks by ISIS militant groups. He said that the two border crossing points were being under control of the militants.
On Friday, the militants took control of the border crossing point with Syria near al-Qaim city, some 330 km from Baghdad, and also seized several posts from border guards after clashing with security forces.
In New Delhi, the Indian government announced on Tuesday that 17 more Indians have been evacuated from Iraq's conflict zone.
"With the help of (Iraqi) authorities, we have been able to evacuate 17 more Indian nationals from the conflict zone. They are now in Baghdad and will come back very soon," the ministry of external affairs said.
Ministry's spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said the 39 Indians abducted and in captivity in Mosul had "not been hurt or harmed".
The 46 Indian nurses in Tikrit were also safe, he added.
Meanwhile, in another development, US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Iraq's Kurdistan region to discuss the country's crisis with Kurdish leaders, media reported.
Kerry, who landed at the Arbil airport, was scheduled to meet top regional officials, including the president of the Kurdistan region, Masoud Barzani, and prime minister of the Regional Government, Nechirvan Barzani, Xinhua reported.
The visit came a day after Kerry met with Iraqi leaders and high ranking officials in Baghdad, during which he urged the country's Shia-led government to reach out to the Sunni and Kurdish communities and to "stand united" against the militant groups, including the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).
Kerry confirmed the US's support to Iraqi security forces which "will be intense and sustained, and if Iraq's leaders take the necessary steps to bring the country together, it will be effective".
"It will allow Iraqi security forces to confront ISIS more effectively," he said.
Separately, UN monitors said that at least 1,075 people, most of them civilians, have so far been killed in strife-torn Iraq during June.
UN spokesperson Rupert Colville said the figure "should be viewed very much as a minimum".
The UN human rights team in Iraq reports that at least 757 civilians died in Nineveh, Diyala and Salahuddin provinces between June 5 and 22, BBC reported Tuesday.
At least 318 other people were killed during the same time in Baghdad and areas in southern Iraq.
Iraq has seen a deteriorating security situation since June 10 when bloody clashes broke out between security forces and hundreds of Sunni militants who took control of Mosul and later seized swathes of territories after Iraqi security forces withdrew from their posts in Nineveh and other predominantly Sunni provinces.