The Iraqi army opened escape routes Saturday for hundreds of civilians trapped by fighting with "Islamic State" (IS) militants in Mosul's Old City.
IS appears to be mounting a last stand in what was once the self-declared capital of its self-styled "caliphate."
The Iraqi forces, trained in urban warfare by the US military, were channeling their attack along two perpendicular streets that come together in the center of the Old City. Their aim is to isolate the militants into four pockets.
"Fighting is very intense in the Old City and civilians are at extreme, almost unimaginable risk. There are reports that thousands, maybe even tens of thousands, of people are being held as human shields [by Islamic State]," Lise Grande, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, said in a statement. "Hundreds of civilians, including children, are being shot."
Iraqi officials are hoping to declare victory in the crucial city in the coming days, to coincide with the Muslim Eid holiday, which marks the end of Ramadan.
Fleeing to safety
Helicopter gunships were providing air support for the Iraqi ground troops, firing on jihadi emplacements in the Old City.
Hundreds of civilians took advantage of the safe corridors to flee to the safety of the government-held parts of Mosul, west of the Old City. At least 100 civilians reached safety during one 20-minute period on Saturday.
Some were injured and carrying malnourished children. "My baby only had bread and water for the past eight days," one mother said.
But more than 100,000 people, of whom half are thought to be children, remain trapped in IS territory, which is now less than two square kilometers (1.2 square miles).
A land mine claimed the lives of three journalists in Mosul this week. Veteran French war correspondent Veronique Robert, 54, who was wounded in the land mine blast that killed two of her colleagues in Mosul earlier this week, has died of her injuries, her employers France Televisions announced Saturday.
She was working on a story with her French colleague Stephan Villeneuve, 48, and Iraqi Kurdish reporter Bakhtiyar Addad, 41, when the land mine exploded on Monday, killing Villeneuve and Addad almost immediately.
A fourth journalist with them, Samuel Forey, suffered light injuries.
The fall of Mosul would essentially end the Iraqi half of the IS "caliphate" as a quasi-state structure. But the militants would still hold sizable tracts of mostly rural territory in both Iraq and Syria.
It was in Mosul in the summer of 2014 that IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced himself to the world for the first time as the "caliph," or ruler of all Muslims. Mosul's population at the time was more than 2 million.
Raqqa, the IS' so-called capital in Syria, is also under siege by a US-backed Kurdish coalition. It is thought to be only a matter of time before the jihadis lose their grip there as well.
bik/sms (Reuters, dpa, AFP, AP)