Iraqi forces advance towards heart of ISIL-held bastion
TAL AFAR - Agence France-PresseIraqi forces advanced on Aug. 23 towards central Tal Afar, one of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group's last strongholds in the country, as aid workers braced for an exodus of civilians fleeing the fighting.
Armored 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 an AFP photographer on the ground.
They encountered trucks parked across roads with earthen embankments aimed at stopping them, as well as sniper fire and mortar shelling.
Six weeks after routing the jihadists from Iraq's second city Mosul, the Iraqi forces launched an assault Aug. 20 on Tal Afar, where an estimated 1,000 jihadists are holed up.
They retook three first districts of the city on Aug. 22, but as with the gruelling nine-month campaign to recapture Mosul, their convoys face an onslaught of suicide and car bomb attacks.
On Aug. 23 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 ISIL alongside the army and police.
"All the lines of ISIL defense outside the city have been broken and the troops are advancing from all directions towards the inner quarters of the city," he added.
As they advanced, troops said they discovered a network of underground tunnels used by the jihadists 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 jihadists 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.
Caught between the two sides, those still inside the city have been pounded by Iraqi and U.S.-led coalition aircraft for weeks, as well as intense artillery fire since Aug. 20.
The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) fears they could be "used as human shields" and that "attempts to flee could result in executions and shootings," said the spokesman for UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.
The United Nations and aid agencies are working to establish shelters for the displaced.
Those who flee through desert areas face temperatures of up to 43 degrees Celsius, sometimes for periods of more than 10 hours, putting them at risk of dehydration, said Viren Falcao of the Danish Refugee Council.
Tal Afar was once a key supply hub for ISIL between Mosul -- which lies around 70 kilometres to the east -- and the Syrian border.
The Iraqi forces massed around Tal Afar on Aug. 22 before the jihadists responded with artillery fire.
Army, police and of the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary coalition later took "full control" of the Al-Kifah, Al-Nur and Al-Askari districts, the Hashed said.
The Iraqi forces had encircled the city despite what Hashed spokesman Assadi called "intense" fighting. He said the battle for the city would probably last weeks, in contrast to the months-long battle for Mosul.