WASHINGTON/BAGHDAD/BRUSSELS - US-led coalition air and artillery strikes have killed 70 Islamic State fighters in Fallujah, including the militants’ leader in the Iraqi city, a military spokesman said Friday.

Baghdad-based Colonel Steve Warren said that over the last four days, 20 strikes in the besieged city had destroyed IS fighting positions and gun emplacements.

“We’ve killed more than 70 enemy fighters, including Maher Al-Bilawi, who is the commander of ISIL forces in Fallujah,” Warren said, using an acronym for the IS group. “This, of course, won’t completely cause the enemy to stop fighting, but it’s a blow. And it creates confusion and it causes the second-in-command to have to move up. It causes other leadership to have to move around,” he added.

Iraqi forces launched an operation to recapture Fallujah, an IS stronghold located just 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of Baghdad, at the start of this week.

Hundreds of people fled the Fallujah area on Friday with the help of Iraqi forces who are fighting to retake the city from the Islamic State militant group, officials said. Iraqi forces launched an operation to recapture Fallujah, an IS stronghold located just 50 kilometres (30 miles) west of Baghdad, at the start of this week.

But few of the estimated tens of thousands of civilians inside the city have managed to escape.

“Our forces evacuated 460 people... most of them women and children,” said police Lieutenant General Raed Shakir Jawdat. “Hundreds of families from the people of Fallujah have been able to leave,” said Raja Barakat, a member of the security committee for Anbar province, where Fallujah is located.

Meanwhile, the EU on Friday extended for another year sanctions against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime over its “violent repression” of civilians, maintaining an oil embargo and a freeze on Syrian central bank assets. The European Council, which groups the 28-member bloc, rolled over existing sanctions in line with a decision it took in December 2014 to continue sanctions “as long as repression continues,” it said in a statement. “The Council extended EU restrictive measures against the Syrian regime until 1 June 2017,” the statement said.

The sanctions include an embargo on Syrian oil, investment restrictions, and a freeze on Syrian central bank assets within the European Union.

They also cover export restrictions on equipment and technology that Damascus could use to repress its people as well as well as equipment and technology it can use to monitor or intercept Internet or telephone calls.

The EU has also imposed a travel ban and asset freeze on more than 200 people and 70 entities over President Bashar al-Assad regime’s “violent repression” of Syria’s civilians.

The EU said meanwhile it “remains committed to a lasting solution to the conflict in Syria” in cooperation with the 17-nation International Syria Support Group (ISSG) - co-chaired by the US and Russia.

The group has vowed to bolster the shaky ceasefire and send humanitarian relief, but has so far been unable to set a fresh date for negotiations between the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition.

The Syrian conflict erupted in early 2011 when Assad’s forces staged a brutal crackdown on anti-government protests, sparking violence that has since claimed more than 270,000 lives.