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Iraqi elite troops seize Christian ghost town near Mosul

Iraqi special forces have seized the abandoned Christian town of Bartella, despite some resistance. Iraq's prime minister claimed his country's troops were advancing faster than expected in the battle for Mosul.

The Iraqi military announced that it had retaken the abandoned town of Bartella in a new military operation to clear fighters of the so-called "Islamic State" group from the eastern outskirts of Mosul.

The elite troops launched a predawn assault, facing suicide bombers and sniper fire as they entered the town. Officials said they had established full control of the town by the afternoon.

"I announce to the people of Bartella and Mosul we have complete control over Bartella," Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) commander Taleb Sheghati said.

"Its residents, its churches and all of its infrastructure are now under the control of CTS."

The small Christian town, about 15 kilometers (nine miles) from the edge of Mosul, was captured by "IS" when it swept across the Nineveh plain in August 2014. About 120,000 Iraqi Christians were forced to flee their homes.

The operation had seen the CTS, Iraq's best-trained and least sectarian forces, target IS-held villages on the way to Bartella with artillery fire and support from attack helicopters.

Watch video 25:59

The Battle for Mosul: Final Blow for IS?

Peshmerga seek to restrict IS

Meanwhile, Kurdish peshmerga forces opened a new front further north, with a multi-pronged attack on the town of Bashiqa.

"The objectives are to clear a number of nearby villages and secure control of strategic areas to further restrict ISIL's movements," said the peshmerga command, using an alternative acronym for IS.

During the advance, peshmerga fighters opened fire on a weaponized drone - among the latest additions to IS' deadly array of weaponry - which was found to have been booby trapped when it fell to the ground.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Thursday told an international meeting in Paris that the four-day-old offensive was "advancing faster than expected," repeating earlier optimistic assessments.

"Forces are currently pushing forward ... more quickly than we thought, and more quickly certainly than we established in our plan of campaign," he said by videolink to the conference, which is focused on post-liberation planning for Mosul. The city, Iraq's second-largest, is now said to be almost completely encircled, and some leading IS figures are said to have already fled.The US  has accused IS of seeking to use civilians in the city as human shields.

Irak Angriff auf Mossul Peschmerga Raketenwerfer (Getty Images/AFP/S. Hamed)

Kurdish peshmerga also launched a fresh push, further tightening the noose

US serviceman killed

US officials said an American service member died on Thursday after being wounded in a roadside bomb explosion north of Mosul. There are more than 100 US special operations forces embedded with Iraqi units for the offensive.

There were no official figures for the number of Iraqi personnel who have been injured in the fighting since the battle for Mosul began in earnest on Monday.

"IS" had seized Mosul and the surrounding area in a lightning advance across northern Iraq in the summer of 2014. Soon afterwards, the group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared a self-styled caliphate from the pulpit of a mosque in the city.

rc/jr (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)

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