KALAK, Iraq — Hundreds of Iraqi men, women and children crammed into vehicles fled their homes Thursday, fearing clashes, kidnapping and rape after Islamic militants seized large swaths of northern Iraq.
The families and fleeing soldiers who arrived at a checkpoint at the northern frontier of this largely autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq were among some half-million people who have fled their homes since Monday, according to a U.N. estimate.
Workers were busily extending the Khazer checkpoint in the frontier area known as Kalak, where displaced women hungrily munched on sandwiches distributed by aid workers and soldiers rushed to process people.
The exodus began after fighters of the al-Qaida breakaway group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, seized the northern city of Mosul in a stunning assault Monday. Since then, the militants have moved southward toward the capital, Baghdad, in the biggest crisis to face Iraq in years.
"Masked men came to our house and they threatened us: 'We will get to you.' So we fled," said Abed, a laborer who abandoned his home on the edge of Mosul on Thursday. "They kidnapped other people. They took away some people for interrogation."
The young man said rumors were quickly spreading that Islamic State fighters — as well as masked bandits taking advantage of the chaos — were seizing young women for rape or forced marriage.
Many of the displaced said they were on the move because they feared retribution by Iraq's military — underscoring the grave sectarian tensions that have allowed the Islamic State fighters, who are Sunni extremists, to conquer so fast and deeply.
"We were worried the struggle would get bigger, that Maliki's army would shell us," said a middle-aged Sunni woman, referring to the country's Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki.
"Whoever will rule us — let them rule us," said her husband Talal Ahmad, 62. "We just want our children to be safe."
The U.N. children's agency, UNICEF, said thousands of displaced, particularly children, were sheltering in schools, hospitals and mosques outside Mosul, many of them without adequate water, sanitation, or shelter. The Red Cross said it had already distributed food and relief to 8,000 people near Mosul.