HAMMAM AL-ALIL (Iraq) • Iraqi troops advancing towards Mosul battled yesterday for the last town left between them and the ISIS stronghold to the north, which is already under assault from special forces fighting inside the city's eastern districts.
The attack on Hammam al-Alil, about 15km south of Mosul, targeted a force of at least 70 Islamic State in Iraq and Syria fighters in the Tigris river town, said the commander of the Mosul operations, Major-General Najm al-Jabouri.
Some militants had tried to escape across the river, but others put up heavy resistance and the troops had thwarted three attempted suicide car bombings, he said.
The battle is "very important - it's the last town for us before Mosul", Gen Jabouri told reporters.
Iraqi helicopters were supporting the army, he said, backed also by jets from a US-led air coalition which had been hitting ISIS targets in the town for several days.
A military statement said security forces had raised the Iraqi flag over a government building in the town, but did not say whether it was fully under their control.
Recapturing Mosul would effectively crush the Iraqi half of a self- proclaimed caliphate declared by ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi from the pulpit of a Mosul mosque two years ago. His Islamist group also controls large parts of east Syria.
In Hammam al-Alil, the militants had taken hundreds of people as human shields, although it was not clear how many people were left in the town. Before ISIS swept in more than two years ago, Hammam al-Alil and outlying villages had a population of 65,000.
Gen Jabouri said a man he described as a senior ISIS figure, Ammar Salih Ahmed Abu Bakr, was killed by federal police - who are fighting with the army in Hammam al-Alil - as he tried to escape from the town by car.
Many of the remaining militants were non-Iraqis, he said.