Iraqi forces have driven militants from central Tal Afar and its historic citadel, they said Saturday, placing them on the verge of fully recapturing one of the last ISIS strongholds in the country.
“Units of the Counter-Terrorism Service liberated the Citadel and Basatin districts and raised the Iraqi flag on top of the citadel,” operation commander General Abdulamir Yarallah said in a statement.
The CTS and federal police units had also seized three northern districts and the Al-Rabia neighborhood west of the citadel, a day after taking the district of Al-Talia to the south.
Clashes were ongoing on the northern outskirts and Iraqi forces were dealing with final pockets of militants inside the city, Yarallah said.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said that 70 percent of the city has been liberated. “God willing, the remaining part will be liberated soon,” he told a news conference with his French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian, and French Defense Minister Florence Parly, in Baghdad.
The Iraqi military also said Tal Afar is about to be fully captured.
The advance in Tal Afar, just days into an assault on the strategic town, comes six weeks after Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory over the terrorist organization in second city Mosul.
Tal Afar sits on a strategic route between ISIS-controlled territories in Syria and Mosul, 70 kilometers further east.
Officials have said they hope to announce victory in Tal Afar by Eid al-Adha that is set to start in Iraq on September 2.
The International Organization for Migration said “thousands of civilians” had fled Tal Afar since the offensive began.
Those who flee through desert areas face soaring temperatures for long periods, putting them at risk of dehydration, said the UNHCR and Viren Falcao of the Danish Refugee Council.
Up to 2,000 militants remain in Tal Afar, according to US and Iraqi military commanders. The number of civilians left in the city is between 10,000 and 20,000, according to the US military.
Once Tal Afar is retaken, Baghdad is expected to launch a new offensive on Hawija, 300 kilometers north of Baghdad.