(AFP) MOSUL, Iraq — Elite Iraqi forces were engaged in “intense” fighting with jihadists in eastern Mosul on Saturday, an officer said, as civilians gathered on the city’s outskirts to flee.
Iraqi forces launched a massive operation to retake the country’s second city from the Islamic State group on October 17, and the Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) special forces have pushed the jihadists back from some Mosul neighborhoods.
But there are still weeks if not months of fighting ahead in the battle to recapture the last IS-held Iraqi city, and aid workers have warned that displacement may spike as Iraqi troops push deeper into Mosul.
“The fighting is intense this morning. We’re trying to fortify our positions in Arbajiyah before continuing our attack into Al-Bakr,” said Staff Lieutenant Colonel Muntadhar Salem of CTS, referring to two Mosul areas.
Salem later clarified that the aim was to surround Al-Bakr but not to assault it for now.
Staff Lieutenant Colonel Ali Fadhel also confirmed that objective, saying: “We… are advancing towards Al-Bakr so that we can surround it.”
“There were three car bombs coming out from Al-Bakr toward our positions that we spotted with our drone and hit with our tanks,” Salem said.
The jihadists are also using drones for observation, one of which was shot down by CTS forces, Fadhel said.
As fighting raged deeper in the city, civilians, some of them carrying white flags, walked toward its outskirts, gathering near an Iraqi military truck that would take them out of the city to safety.
More than 49,000 people have been displaced since the Mosul operation began, the International Organisation for Migration said on Saturday.
Aid workers have said that a million or more people could be displaced by the battle for Mosul, meaning that the worst may still be ahead.
IS overran large areas north and west of Baghdad in 2014, but Iraqi forces backed by US-led air strikes have since regained significant ground from the jihadists.