Families Flee As Iraqi Forces Advance Towards Mosul Airport
Families continued to trickle out of villages south of Mosul city on Wednesday (February 22) as U.S.-backed Iraqi forces battling Islamic State (ISIS) fighters tightened the siege around ISIS positions.
Federal police and elite interior ministry units known as Rapid Response are leading the charge directly towards the airport, located on the southern side of Mosul, trying to dislodge the militants from the nearby hilltop village of Albu Saif.
Men, women and children can be seen fleeing with all their belongings, some even with their herds of animals.
Taha, a resident in Albu Saif, explains how families are fearing for their lives.
"We hid in our homes, because they (ISIS militants) are taking us there (west side of city), so, we hid inside our homes," Taha, who managed to flee a village near Albu Saif, told reporters and Iraqi forces when he arrived in Albu Saif.
Iraqi forces reached the "vicinity" of Mosul's international airport on Monday (February 20), the military said. A Rapid Response spokesman said the airport, once retaken, would be a close-support base for the onslaught into the west of Iraq's second-largest city.
The forces will also need to secure the Gozhlani military complex, which includes barracks and training grounds and sprawls across the area between the airport and the end of the Baghdad-Mosul highway.
Intermittent gunfire and sounds of explosions could be heard in the village, which is fully controlled by the Iraqi forces.
The few fleeing families were received by forces of Iraqi Federal Police stationed in the village.
ISIS militants are essentially under siege in western Mosul, along with an estimated 750,000 civilians, after they were forced out of the eastern part of the city in the first phase of an offensive that concluded last month, after 100 days of fighting.
A senior Iraqi official said his forces did not anticipate much resistance at the airport or base especially as the area was exposed to air strikes and artillery bombardment. But Iraqi commanders expect the battle to be more difficult than in the east of Mosul, in part because tanks and armored vehicles cannot pass through narrow alleyways which criss-cross the city's ancient western districts.
Militants have developed a network of passageways and tunnels to enable them to hide and fight among civilians, melt away after hit-and-run operations and track government troop movements, according to inhabitants. And it's the civilians who are trapped amongst the militants.
"They (ISIS militants) do not let anyone to flee from inside Mosul. People are only fleeing from Albu Saif. They did not let anyone to flee from inside Mosul," said Sultan Younis, who fled his village with his family and herds of sheep and cows.
ISIS was thought to have up to 6,000 fighters in Mosul when the government's offensive started in mid-October. Of those, more than 1,000 have been killed, according to Iraqi estimates.
The remainder now face a 100,000-strong force made up of Iraqi armed forces, including elite paratroopers and police, Kurdish forces and Iranian-trained Shia paramilitary groups.
The westward road that links the city to Syria was cut in November by the Shia paramilitary group known as Popular Mobilization Forces. The militants are in charge of the road that links Mosul to Tal Afar, a town they control 60 km (40 miles) to the west.