Iraqi forces battle towards heart of Mosul

MOSUL/ERBIL: Iraqi forces battled their way along two streets that meet in the heart of Mosul’s Old City on Friday, and said they aimed to open routes for civilians to flee Islamic State’s last stand there.

US-trained urban warfare units are leading the fight in the maze of narrow alleyways of the Old City, the last district in the hands of the Islamist insurgents.

Iraqi authorities are hoping to declare victory in the northern Iraqi city in the Eid holiday, which marks the end of the fasting month of Ramzan , during the next few days. Military analysts say government troops’ advance will gather pace after Islamic State fighters blew up the 850year-old al-Nuri mosque on Wednesday.

It was in the al-Nuri mosque that Islamic State’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed its “caliphate” over parts of Iraq and Syria three years ago. The destruction of the mosque gives troops more freedom in attack as they no longer have to worry about damaging the ancient site.

A US-led international coalition is providing air and ground support in the eight-month-old offensive to drive the militants from their de facto capital in Iraq.

“The aim is to open ways for civilians to evacuate. We give them indications by loudspeaker when it’s possible,” an Iraqi military spokesman said.

Some 7,000 civilians were brought out of the Old City this week, the Iraqi state news website said.

More than 100,000 civilians, of whom half are children, are trapped in the old houses of the Old City, with little food, water or medical treatment. Aid organisations say IS has stopped many from leaving, using them as human shields. Hundreds fleeing the Old City have been killed in the past three weeks.

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