MOSUL, Iraq (AFP) - Iraqi forces battled the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group deep inside Mosul on Thursday (Nov 24), piling pressure on terrorists who have no more escape routes, but leaving trapped civilians in the crossfire.
Elite forces gained new ground in east Mosul, looking for fresh momentum as stiffer-than-expected ISIS resistance threatened to bog down the five-week-old offensive against the Islamists' last major stronghold in Iraq.
Maan al-Saadi, a commander with the Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS), said on the frontline in Mosul that his forces were battling ISIS in the neighbourhood of Al-Khadraa in Iraq's second-largest city.
"They cannot flee. They have two choices - give up or die," he said.
Over the past few days, Iraqi forces have cut off the main supply line running from Mosul to the western border with Syria, where ISIS still controls the city of Raqqa.
The US-led coalition also bombed bridges over the Tigris river that splits Mosul in two, reducing the terrorists' ability to resupply the eastern front.
An old British-era bridge, which cannot be used by heavy vehicles, is the only one still standing in the city.
"The Iraqi advance on the south and south-east of the city has started to pick up some steam, which we think is a really great development," coalition spokesman Colonel John Dorrian said.
"They're going to have to react to that advance. That thins out their defences," he said.
A senior CTS commander said on Wednesday (Nov 23) that 40 per cent of eastern Mosul had now been retaken.
"It is extraordinarily tough fighting, just brutal, but there is an inevitability to it. The Iraqis are going to beat them," Col Dorrian said.
Iraqi forces launched a major offensive on October 17 to retake Mosul, where terror supremo Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed a caliphate in 2014.
They are also edging towards the city from a northern front as well as from the south, where they are within striking distance of Mosul airport.
Among the forces deployed south and west of the city are the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Forces), an umbrella for paramilitaries dominated by Teheran-backed militias.
They have focused their operations on Tal Afar, a large town still held by ISIS west of Mosul and on Wednesday announced they had cut the main road between it and Syria.
That will make it very long and dangerous for ISIS if it attempts to move fighters and equipment between Mosul and Raqqa, the last two bastions of their crumbling "state".
The eastern side of the city was expected to offer less resistance than the west bank, but CTS forces have faced a torrid time.
ISIS fighters moving in an intricate network of tunnels have used snipers, booby traps and a seemingly endless supply of suicide car bombers to stop Iraqi forces.
The authorities have not released casualty figures since the start of the offensive, but fighters have admitted being surprised by how fierce ISIS resistance has been.
The intensity of the fighting has been one of the factors preventing civilians from fleeing to the safety of some of the camps being set up around Mosul.
The United Nations had expected around 200,000 people to flee their homes in the first few weeks of the offensive, but only about a third of that number have been displaced so far.
The International Organisation for Migration said on Thursday that around 76,000 people had been displaced since October 17.
It said that about 7,000 people had already returned to their homes, leaving roughly 69,000 still displaced, most of them in camps.
Forces have so far encouraged residents to remain in their homes as they inched through the city, fighting house-to-house.
Evacuating the population would allow Iraqi forces to use heavier artillery and achieve faster results, but Iraq's leadership wants to prevent the complete destruction of Mosul.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has repeatedly promised to rid the northern city of ISIS by the end of 2016.