26,000 civilians escape Mosul amid fierce clashes
MOSULSome 26,000 people have fled in the 10 days since Iraqi forces launched a push to retake west Mosul, amid fierce clashes between Iraqi forces and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militants.
West Mosul is ISIL’s last urban bastion in Iraq, and its recapture would mark the effective end of the cross-border “caliphate” its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced from a mosque in the city more than two years ago.
Iraqi forces have yet to advance deep into the west, but the fighting combined with privation and harsh ISIL rule has already pushed a growing number of civilians to flee.
Field teams received “26,000 displaced people from [west] Mosul during the past 10 days,” Jassem Mohammed al-Jaff, the Iraqi minister of displacement and migration, said in a statement, according to AFP.
The number of people who have fled is only a small fraction of the 750,000 people who are believed to have stayed on in west Mosul under ISIL rule but is expected to rise sharply in the coming days and weeks.
Sniper fire is a significant danger in the area, said Kathy Bequary, the executive director of NYC Medics, a group providing emergency care from a mobile clinic.
“We’re seeing a lot of serious gunshot wounds from snipers,” Bequary told AFP.
“Most of our patients are combatants, but civilians are affected too. Two days ago, we treated a family – a mother, father, son and daughter – who were trying to escape Mosul and were targeted by snipers,” she said.
“The 5-year-old daughter was shot in the pelvis, a through and through wound. The girl was very, very critical,” Bequary said.
The drive to retake the west of Mosul – the smaller but more densely populated side of a city split by the Tigris River – began on Feb. 19, after Iraqi troops retook its east side the previous month.
ISIL is putting up tough resistance in the southwest of the city, a commander in the elite Counter-Terrorism Service told AFP on March 1.
The CTS is fighting “for the [Maamun] Flats area, which is considered very important for control of the Baghdad road and the surrounding neighborhoods,” Staff Lt.-Gen. Abdulghani al-Assadi said.
“The resistance is violent and fierce because they’re defending this line and this line, in our opinion, is the main line for them,” al-Assadi said.
Meanwhile, U.S.-backed Iraqi army units on March 1 took control of the last major road out of western Mosul that had been in ISIL’s hands, trapping the militants in a shrinking area within the city, a general and residents said.
The army’s 9th Armored Division was within a kilometer of Mosul’s Syria Gate, the city’s northwestern entrance, a general from the unit told Reuters by telephone.
“We effectively control the road, it is in our sight,” he said.
Mosul residents said they had not been able to travel on the highway that starts at the Syria Gate since Feb. 28. The road links Mosul to Tal Afar, another ISIL stronghold 60 km to the west, and then to Syria.