MOSUL • Iraqi forces have opened exit routes for hundreds of civilians to flee the Old City of Mosul as they battled to retake the ancient quarter from Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants mounting a last stand in what was the de facto capital of their "caliphate".
United States-trained urban warfare units were channelling their onslaught along two perpendicular streets that converge in the heart of the Old City, aiming to isolate the insurgents in four pockets.
The United Nations voiced alarm yesterday at the rising death toll among civilians in the heavily populated Old City, saying as many as 12 were killed and hundreds injured last Friday. "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 ISIS)," Ms Lise Grande, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, said in a statement.
"Hundreds of civilians, including children, are being shot."
The Iraqi authorities are hoping to declare victory in the northern Iraqi city in the Muslim Eid holiday, which marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, during the next few days.
Helicopter gunships were assisting the ground thrust, firing at insurgent emplacements in the Old City, a Reuters correspondent reported from a location near the front lines.
The government advance was carving out escape corridors for civilians marooned behind ISIS lines yesterday.
There was a steady trickle of fleeing families, some with injured and malnourished children. "My baby had only bread and water for the past eight days," one mother said.
UNIMAGINABLE RISK TO CIVILIANS
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 ISIS)... Hundreds of civilians, including children, are being shot.
MS LISE GRANDE, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Iraq.
At least 100 civilians reached the safety of a government-held area west of the Old City in one 20-minute period, tired, scared and hungry. Soldiers gave them food and water.
More than 100,000 civilians, of whom half are believed to be children, remain trapped in the crumbling houses of the Old City, with little food, water or medical treatment.
The urban-warfare forces were leading the campaign to clear the Sunni Islamist militants from the maze of Old City alleyways, moving on foot, house to house, in locations too cramped for the use of armoured combat vehicles.
Aid organisations and the Iraqi authorities say ISIS was trying to prevent civilians from leaving so as to use them as human shields.
A US-led international coalition is providing ground and air support in the eight-month-old campaign to seize Mosul, the largest city the militants came to control in a shock offensive in Iraq and neighbouring Syria three years ago.
US-supported Iraqi government offensives have wrested back several important urban centres in the country's west and north from ISIS over the past 18 months.
Military analysts said Baghdad's campaign to recover Mosul gathered pace after ISIS blew up the 850-year-old al-Nuri mosque with its famous leaning minaret last Wednesday.
It was from the mosque that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced himself to the world for the first time as the "caliph", or ruler of all Muslims, on July 4, 2014. Mosul's population at the time was more than two million.
Baghdadi fled into the desert expanse extending across Iraq and Syria in the early phase of the Mosul offensive, leaving the fighting there to local ISIS commanders, according to US and Iraqi officials.
Recent Russian reports that he was killed have not been confirmed by the coalition or the Iraqi authorities.