BAGHDAD • Hundreds of families who fled Mosul last year left displacement camps yesterday to head back to their homes, in the biggest wave yet of returns to the Iraqi city, officials said.
Iraqi forces recently completed their recapture of eastern Mosul, which tens of thousands of people had fled since the Oct 17 start of a massive offensive against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
According to the United Nations, more than 180,000 people have been displaced since the start of the offensive but at least 22,000 have returned to their homes.
The authorities have been organising returns from Khazir and Hasansham displacement camps twice a week. "We are now taking 500 families, which means 2,700 people, to their liberated houses," local official Mustafa Hamid Sarhan told AFP at the Khazir camp, which lies south-east of Mosul.
"This is the biggest wave," he added, as at least 50 buses lined up for those packing up to go home.
One of them was 45-year-old Dhabbah Mohammed Khader, who was about to return with two of her sons. "I'm so happy we finally got rid of Daesh," she said, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS.
"We can go back home now," said the woman, tears running down her wrinkled face.
The continued presence in east Mosul of hundreds of civilians as Iraqi forces advanced has restricted all sides in their choice of weapons and the city has suffered relatively limited destruction.
Iraq's Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Tuesday urged Iraqi forces to "move quickly" to recapture the western part of the city. But ISIS has had 11/2years to build up there, and Iraqi forces are expected to face another fierce battle.
Mosul's western side is more densely packed with civilians - some 750,000, according to Iraqi military estimates - and Iraqi forces have been trying to keep people in their homes to avoid a humanitarian crisis. The United Nations has warned that civilians on the western side were at "extreme risk".
"We hope that everything is done to protect the hundreds of thousands of people who are across the river in the west," Ms Lise Grande, UN humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, said on Tuesday. "We fear for their lives. They can be killed by booby-traps and in crossfire and could be used as human shields."
Reports of soaring food prices and intermittent water and electricity supplies were "distressing", Ms Grande added.
The fight for the western side will be ISIS' last stand in the Iraqi city and one of great symbolic importance for the group. It was the capture of Mosul by the militants in 2014 that prompted ISIS to declare its caliphate.
Much of the fighting inside the city limits has been led by Iraq's elite counter-terrorism troops, who announced that they had finished clearing their sector last week. Since then, the army has been battling to retake a few remaining neighbourhoods in the city's north- east.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, WASHINGTON POST