MOSUL • Iraqi forces yesterday entered Mosul airport, which lies on the southern edge of the city, for the first time since the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group overran the region in 2014.
Backed by jets, gunships and drones, forces blitzed their way across open areas south of Mosul and entered the airport compound, apparently meeting limited resistance but strafing the area for suspected snipers.
The Interior Ministry's rapid response units, followed by federal police forces, entered the compound from the south-west after pushing north from the village of Al-Buseif.
"We have entered the airport and engineering units are clearing the roads," Mr Hisham Abdul Kadhem, commander of the Rapid Response's Scorpion Regiment, told Agence France-Presse inside the airport.
Attack helicopters fired rockets at an old sugar factory next to the perimeter wall, sending a cloud of ash floating across the area.
On the road leading to the southern end of the airport, the body of an ISIS fighter lay next to a motorbike.
While there was no evidence of fierce resistance from within the airport, Iraqi forces continued to attack the area, including the sugar factory which they suspected still sheltered ISIS snipers.
Little was left standing inside the perimeter, and what used to be the runway was littered with dirt and rubble. Most buildings were completely destroyed.
The regional command said elite forces from the Counter-Terrorism Service were simultaneously attacking the neighbouring Ghazlani military base, where some of them were stationed before ISIS seized Mosul in June 2014.
Control of the base and airport would set government forces up to enter Mosul neighbourhoods on the west bank of the Tigris, a month after declaring full control of the east bank. All the city's bridges across the river have been blown up.
The United States-led coalition has played a key role in supporting Iraqi forces with air strikes and advisers on the ground, and US forces were seen on the front lines yesterday.
The American troops are not supposed to be doing the actual fighting but, in recent weeks, have got so close to the front that they have come under attack, coalition spokesman Colonel John Dorrian said. "They have come under fire at different times," he told reporters on Wednesday. "They have returned fire at different times, in and around Mosul."
He declined to say if there were any US casualties but an official told CNN that several personnel were evacuated from the battlefield.
The latest push to retake Mosul, the last stronghold of the militants in Iraq, was launched on Sunday and involves thousands of security personnel. They started closing in on the airport five days ago.
It is unclear how many militants are defending the airport but US officials said on Monday that only around 2,000 remain in Mosul.
There are an estimated 750,000 civilians trapped on the city's west bank which is a little smaller than the east side but is more densely populated.
It is home to the Old City and its narrow streets, which will make for a difficult terrain when Iraqi forces reach it because they are impassable for some military vehicles.
The noose has, for months now, been tightening around Mosul and the living conditions for civilians are fast deteriorating. Residents told AFP about dwindling food supplies, forcing many families to survive on just one meal a day.
Medical workers said the weakest are beginning to die of the combined effect of malnutrition and the lack of medicines, which ISIS fighters are keeping for themselves.
A smaller than expected proportion of the east side's population fled when Iraqi forces stormed it nearly four months ago but the United Nations is bracing for a bigger exodus from the west.
It said 250,000 people or more could flee their homes on the west bank and has scrambled to set up new displacement camps around the city.