Hundreds of Iraqi men, women and children crammed into vehicles have fled their homes, fearing clashes, kidnapping and rape after Islamic militants seized large swaths of northern Iraq.

The families and fleeing soldiers who arrived yesterday 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 UN 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-Qaeda breakaway group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, seized the northern city of Mosul in a stunning assault on 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 labourer who abandoned his home on the edge of Mosul yesterday.

“They kidnapped other people. They took away some people for interrogation.”

The young man said rumours 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.

“They are destroying the honour of families,” said Abed, who, like many of the displaced, wouldn’t give his full name, fearing the Islamic State fighters.

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.

Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, is mostly Sunni, and many residents have long complained of discrimination and mistreatment by the Shia-dominated central government.

“We were worried the struggle would get bigger, that Mr. Maliki’s army would shell us,” said a middle-aged Sunni woman, referring to the country’s Shia 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.”

Many waiting to be processed at the Khazer checkpoint, set among golden wheat fields, echoed similar concerns. Most hadn’t seen fighting but heard occasional gunshots. They saw other people fleeing and so joined the exodus.

More In: World | International | News