Iraqi forces advance towards heart of IS bastion

TAL AFAR: Iraqi forces on Wednesday recaptured several districts and advanced towards the centre of Tal Afar, one of the IS group’s last strongholds in the country, as aid workers braced for an exodus of civilians fleeing the fighting.
Armoured personnel carriers full of soldiers and fighters of the Hashed al Shaabi paramilitary coalition moved into Al Nur district early in the morning as warplanes flew overhead, said a photographer on the ground.
They encountered trucks parked across roads with earthen embankments aimed at stopping them, as well as sniper fire from rooftops and mortar shelling.
Six weeks after routing the militants from Iraq’s second city Mosul, Iraqi forces launched an assault on Sunday on Tal Afar, where an estimated 1,000 militants are holed up.
They retook three first districts of the city on Tuesday, but as with the gruelling nine-month campaign to recapture Mosul, their convoys face an onslaught of suicide and car bomb attacks.
On Wednesday, they “entered the neighbourhood of Al Kifah North… and headed towards the centre of the city,” said Ahmed al Assadi, spokesman for the Hashed al Shaabi paramilitary coalition fighting IS alongside the army and police. “All the lines of IS defence outside the city have been broken and the troops are advancing from all directions towards the inner quarters of the city,” he added.
The Hashed also announced the capture of the districts of Al Tanak and Al Sinaai in eastern Tal Afar.
As government forces advanced, troops said they discovered a network of underground tunnels used by the militants to launch attacks behind lines of already conquered territory, or to escape.
In a bid to counter these surprise attacks, the Iraqis dropped leaflets overnight calling on civilians to help by marking houses where the militants are located. The International Organization for Migration said “thousands of civilians” had fled Tal Afar since the offensive began.
But around 30,000 civilians are trapped in the fighting, according to the United Nations. — AFP