US-led coalition strikes supporting Iraqi forces in the recapture of Fallujah have killed 70 Islamic State militants including the group's commander in the city, a U.S military spokesman says.
US Army Colonel Steve Warren, a spokesman for the US-led military campaign against Islamic State, on Friday (local time) said the coalition had carried out 20 strikes in support of the campaign over the past four days.
Maher al-Bilawi, commander of Islamic State fighters in Fallujah, was killed two days ago, Warren said.
He said the killing of Bilawi and the other militants "won't completely cause the enemy to stop fighting but it's a blow."
Meanwhile, a Shi'ite militia leader said the final battle to recapture the Islamic State stronghold near Baghdad will start in "days, not weeks", as new reports emerged of people starving to death in the besieged Sunni city.
The first phase of the offensive that started on Monday is nearly finished, with the complete encirclement of the city that lies 50 km west of the Iraqi capital, said Hadi al-Amiri, leader of the Iranian-backed Badr Organisation.
Shi'ite fighters with Iraqi security forces advance to Fallujah, Iraq (Reuters)
Wearing military fatigues, Amiri spoke to state-TV from the operations area with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi standing by his side in the black uniform of Iraq's counter-terrorism force.
At the end of last year, Abadi said 2016 would be the year of the final victory over Islamic State, which declared a caliphate two years ago in territory it controls in Iraq and Syria.
Fallujah is a bastion of the insurgency that fought the US occupation of Iraq and the Shi'ite-led authorities that replaced Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, a Sunni.
It was the first city captured by Islamic State in Iraq, in January 2014, and is the second-largest still held by the militants after Mosul, their de-facto capital.
Amiri said this week the Shi'ite paramilitary coalition known as Popular Mobilisation would only take part in the encirclement operations, and would let the army storm Fallujah.
It would only enter the city if the army's attack failed.
Amiri called on civilians to leave from a southwestern exit called al-Salam (Peace) Junction. But the United Nations said on Friday about 50,000 civilians were being prevented by the hardline Sunni militants from escaping.
Those who did manage to flee the city reported some people were dying of starvation, the UN refugee agency UNHCR said.
The Norwegian Refugee Council on Thursday reported similar accounts from displaced people interviewed at a camp near Fallujah.
"Food has been in very short supply. We are hearing accounts that people are relying on expired rice and dried dates and that's about it for their diet," UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming told a news briefing in Geneva.