SOUTH OF MOSUL (Iraq) • Iraqi forces battling the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group in west Mosul yesterday seized a damaged bridge that could link up their units on either side of the Tigris river, a key step in the campaign to defeat the extremists in their stronghold, a spokesman said.
"The Rapid Response Force and the federal police have liberated Jawsaq neighbourhood and now control the western end of the fourth bridge," Brigadier-General Yahya Rasool said.
The spokesman for the Joint Operations Command was referring to the southern-most of five bridges - all of which are damaged and unusable - across the Tigris river that divides the northern Iraqi city.
"That means the bridge is under control on both sides," he said. Government forces retook the east bank from ISIS a month ago, completing a key phase in an offensive on Mosul involving tens of thousands of fighters that began on Oct 17.
Engineering units will be expected to deploy a so-called "ribbon bridge" across the Tigris that will allow the western side's active front lines to be connected to the already retaken east bank.
Once repaired, the bridge could help bring reinforcements and supplies from the eastern side, piling pressure on the militants dug in among 750,000 civilians on the western side.
Gen Rasool said the interior ministry's Rapid Response Force had now fully retaken two neighbourhoods on the west bank, while forces from the elite Counter-Terrorism Service have retaken another farther west.
"The street fighting is intense - these are populated neighbourhoods," Gen Rasool said. "But our forces are fighting deep in the west. The enemy is broken."
Several thousand militants, including many who travelled from Western countries to join ISIS, are believed to be still in Mosul, prepared for a fierce standoff .
"The more we advance, the fiercer the resistance," said Lieutenant- Colonel Abdel Amir al-Mohammadawi, from the Rapid Response Force units that are fighting near the captured bridge.
The United Nations' World Food Programme said yesterday it was extremely concerned about the dire humanitarian situation facing families in western Mosul.
Since government forces broke through the city's southern limits on Thursday, more than 10,000 civilians have fled ISIS-held areas, seeking medical assistance, food and water, Iraqi commanders said.
About 1,000 civilians arrived in the early hours yesterday at the sector held by the Counter-Terrorism Service. The wounded were taken to the clinic of the elite unit, while men were screened to make sure they were not ISIS members.
The west bank of Mosul includes the Old City, where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his only public appearance in July 2014 and proclaimed a "caliphate" straddling Iraq and Syria.
Some of its streets are too narrow for military vehicles and will oblige Iraqi forces to undertake perilous operations on foot.
The United States commander in Iraq has said he believes US-backed forces will recapture both Mosul and Raqqa - ISIS' Syria stronghold - within six months. US personnel are operating close to the front lines to direct air strikes.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS