BAGHDAD/BARTALLA • US-backed Iraqi forces moved closer to a town south of Mosul where aid groups and regional officials say ISIS has executed dozens of prisoners.
A military statement said security forces advanced to the edge of Hammam al-Alil, a thermal water resort 15km south of Mosul, after an elite unit breached the eastern limits of the city, the ultra-hardline group's last major city stronghold in Iraq.
Security forces advancing north on the western bank of the Tigris River recaptured five villages yesterday, the closest of them just 5km from Hammam al-Alil, according to military statements.
Just across the river from those forces lie the ruins of the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud, which the Iraqi government says was bulldozed last year as part of ISIS' campaign to destroy symbols which the Sunni Muslim zealots consider idolatrous.
The United Nations cited reports on Tuesday that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which is also known as ISIL, is attempting to displace Hammam al-Alil's estimated population of 25,000 for use as human shields and protection against air and artillery strikes.
"We have grave concerns for the safety of these and the tens of thousands of other civilians who have reportedly been forcibly relocated by ISIL in the past two weeks," UN human rights spokesman Ravina Shamdasani said.
The battle that started on Oct 17 with air and ground support from a United States-led coalition is shaping up as the largest in Iraq since the US-led invasion of 2003.
Mosul still has a population of 1.5 million people, much more than any of the other cities captured by ISIS two years ago in Iraq and neighbouring Syria.
Aid organisations, local officials and Mosul residents have cited reports that ISIS has executed dozens of people in Hammam al-Alil and barracks nearby on suspicion of planning rebellions in and around Mosul to aid the advancing troops.
Mr Abdul Rahman al-Waggaa, a member of the Nineveh provincial council, told Reuters last week that most of the victims were former police and army members. The men were shot dead, he said.
A resident of Mosul's eastern Karama district, still under ISIS control, said yesterday four people were killed in artillery fire and air strikes, and added he saw two partially destroyed houses.
"There's a compulsory curfew in our area. The women and children are frightened and the men can't do anything. We can't even help the wounded," the resident told Reuters by telephone.
"One person was wounded by shrapnel in his house and he bled to death."
The UN has said the Mosul offensive could trigger a humanitarian crisis and a possible refugee exodus, with up to one million people fleeing in a worst-case scenario.
Elite Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) troops were the first to breach Mosul's official boundary this week.
They said on Tuesday they were in control of the state television station.