FREE AT LAST: Iraqi forces free civilians as Old City battle rages –
MOSUL: Iraqi forces opened exit routes for hundreds of civilians to flee the Old City of Mosul on Saturday as they battled to retake the ancient quarter from IS militants mounting a last stand in what was the de facto capital of their “caliphate”.
US-trained urban warfare units were channelling their onslaught along two perpendicular streets that converge in the heart of the Old City, aiming to isolate the insurgents in four pockets. The United Nations voiced alarm on Saturday at the rising death toll among civilians in the heavily populated Old City, saying as many as 12 were killed and hundreds injured 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 IS),” 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 during the Eid holiday, which marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadhan, during the next few days.
Helicopter gunships were assisting the ground thrust, firing at insurgent emplacements in the Old City, a Reuters correspondent reported from a location near the front lines.
The government advance was carving out escape corridors for civilians marooned behind IS 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.
Military analysts said Baghdad’s campaign to recover Mosul gathered pace after IS blew up the 850-year-old Al Nuri mosque with its famous leaning minaret last Wednesday.
The mosque’s destruction, while condemned by Iraqi and UN authorities as another cultural crime by the IS, gave troops more freedom to press their onslaught as they no longer had to worry about damaging the ancient site. — Reuters