Iraq forces help hundreds of civilians escape Isis-held Mosul as UN warns of 'unimaginable' risk to life

'My baby only had bread and water for the past eight days', says one mother

Marius Bosch
Mosul
Saturday 24 June 2017 17:05
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Displaced women and children who fled from clashes walk in the Old City of Mosul
Displaced women and children who fled from clashes walk in the Old City of Mosul

Iraqi forces have opened exit routes for hundreds of people to flee the Old City of Mosul with the United Nations voicing alarm at the rising civilian death toll and the “unimaginable” risks trapped residents face.

Troops are battling to retake the Old City district from Isis fighters mounting a last stand in the final major city they hold in the country.

Urban warfare units have been channelling their onslaught along two perpendicular streets that converge in the heart of the Old City, aiming to isolate the jihadist insurgents in four pockets.

The week-old battle in the Old City is turning into the deadliest of the eight-month US-backed campaign to take back the northern city, which fell to Isis in June 2014.

I saw a young girl with facial injuries walking dazed and shocked across the frontline out of heavily-populated district with a group of neighbours. All her family was killed when their house collapsed, they said.

The United Nations has said as many as 12 civilians were killed and hundreds injured in fighting on Friday.

“Fighting is very intense in the Old City and civilians are at extreme, almost unimaginable risk. There are reports that thousands, maybe even tens of thousands, of people are being held as human shields [by Isis],” Lise Grande, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, said in a statement. “Hundreds of civilians, including children, are being shot.”

Iraqi authorities are hoping to declare victory in the northern Iraqi city in the Muslim Eid holiday, which marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, during the next few days.

Helicopter gunships were assisting the ground thrust, firing at insurgent emplacements in the Old City. The government advance was carving out escape corridors for civilians marooned behind Isis lines.

There was a steady trickle of fleeing families on Saturday, some with injured and malnourished children. “My baby only had bread and water for the past eight days,” one mother said.

At least 100 civilians reached the safety of a government-held area west of the Old City in one 20-minute period, tired, scared and hungry. Soldiers gave them food and water.

More than 100,000 civilians, of whom half are believed to be children, remain trapped in the crumbling old houses of the Old City, with little food, water or medical treatment.

Mosul residents on Isis blowing up Grand al-Nuri Mosque

The urban-warfare forces were leading the campaign to clear the Sunni Islamist militants from the maze of Old City alleyways, moving on foot house-to-house in locations too cramped for the use of armoured combat vehicles.

A US-led international coalition is providing ground and air support in the eight-month-old campaign to seize Mosul, the largest city Isis came to control in a shock offensive in Iraq and neighbouring Syria three years ago.

Iraqi government offensives – supported by the coalition – have wrested back several important urban centres in the country’s west and north from Isis over the past 18 months.

Military analysts said Baghdad’s campaign to recover Mosul gathered pace after the jihadi group blew up the 850-year-old al-Nuri mosque with its famous leaning minaret on Wednesday.

The mosque’s destruction, while condemned by Iraqi and UN authorities as another cultural crime by the jihadists, gave troops more freedom to press their onslaught as they no longer had to worry about damaging the ancient site.

It was from the mosque that Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced himself to the world for the first time as the “caliph”, or ruler of all Muslims, in July 2014. Mosul’s population at the time was more than two million.

Baghdadi fled into the desert expanse extending across Iraq and Syria in the early phase of the Mosul offensive, leaving the fighting there to local Isis commanders, according to US and Iraqi officials. Recent Russian reports that he was killed have not been confirmed by the coalition or Iraqi authorities.

The Iraqi government once hoped to take Mosul by the end of 2016, but the campaign dragged on as Isis reinforced positions in inner-city neighbourhoods of the city’s western half, carried out suicide car and motorbike bomb attacks, laid booby traps and kept up barrages of sniper and mortar fire.

By Saturday, the area still under Isis control was less than two square kilometres (0.77 sq miles), skirting the western bank of the Tigris River that bisects Mosul.

Isis retaliated for government advances on Friday evening with a triple bombing in a neighbourhood in eastern Mosul, which Baghdad’s forces recaptured in January. The attack was carried out by three people who detonated explosive belts, killing five, including three policemen, and wounding 19, according to a military statement on Saturday.

The fall of Mosul would mark the end of the Iraqi half of the so-called-Caliphate as a quasi-state structure, but Isis would still hold sizeable, mainly rural and small-town tracts of both Iraq and Syria.

In eastern Syria, The de facto Isis capital, Raqqa, is now nearly encircled by a US-backed Kurdish-led coalition.

Reuters

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