BAGHDAD Iraq's military called for civilians displaced from Ramadi to stop returning home after dozens of them were killed by Islamic State mines planted in the western city's streets and buildings, officials said on Sunday.
Tens of thousands of residents have moved back to the Anbar provincial capital in the past two months, mostly from camps east of the city where they took refuge prior to the army's advance late last year.
A shortage of experts trained in dismantling explosives has slowed efforts to restore security in Ramadi, but that has not stopped people from responding to calls from local religious and government leaders to go back home.
A spokesman for the Anbar governor's office, which is overseeing much of the effort to restore Ramadi, confirmed the military had issued the directive because "they felt the need to stop the return to ensure that the areas are safe".
He said it was not clear when people would again be allowed to return to Ramadi and declined to comment on what would happen to the residents who had already moved back.
Ramadi's mayor said he expected the freeze to last for only one or two days while the authorities investigated whether the city was being properly cleared of explosives.
The military's joint operations command, which issued the order, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Official statistics indicate that 49 people have been killed and 79 others wounded in Ramadi since the beginning of February, but the United Nations has said those figures are "almost certainly an underestimation".
De-mining is seen as a critical first step in returning civilians to Ramadi, which a U.N. team said last month suffers from destruction worse than anywhere else in Iraq after months of fighting that saw Islamic State bomb attacks and devastating U.S.-led coalition air strikes.
More than 3.4 million Iraqis across the country have been displaced by violence according to U.N. statistics, most of them from the minority Sunni Arab community.
(Reporting by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Alison Williams)
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