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GENEVA (Reuters) - Islamic State insurgents may well use tens of thousands of Mosul residents as human shields to help hold onto their last city stronghold in Iraq, the International Organization for Migration's (IOM) Iraq chief Thomas Weiss said on Tuesday.
That has been the insurgents' pattern as Iraqi and Kurdish forces have closed in on Mosul in recent months, Weiss said.
"Tens of thousands of people may be forcibly expelled, they will be getting trapped between fighting lines under siege, they may be even held as human shields," he said, noting that he expected a sharp rise in the number of people forced to flee as the fighting got closer to the city.
Speaking by phone from Baghdad, Weiss said that, even though chemical weapons' attacks were seen as likely, the IOM had not managed to procure many gas masks yet.
"We also fear, and there has been some evidence that ISIL (Islamic State) might be using chemical weapons. Children, the elderly, disabled, will be particularly vulnerable.
"In the United Nations country team, we believe that the Mosul situation has the potential to be one of the worst-case scenarios, expected to be the largest and most complex humanitarian operation in the world in 2017."
Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Louise Ireland