Erbil- Iraqi forces on Saturday secured several exits for hundreds of civilians to escape Mosul’s Old City amid clashes pushing against ISIS ultra-hardliners.
ISIS militants have been fighting a fierce battle in the hopes of salvaging their last key stronghold in Iraq.
US-trained urban warfare units were channeling their onslaught along two perpendicular streets that converge in the heart of the Old City, aiming to isolate the ISIS terrorists in four pockets.
The United Nations voiced alarm on Saturday at the rising death toll among civilians in the fighting, saying as many as 12 were killed and hundreds injured on 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),” Lise Grande, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, said in a statement. “Hundreds of civilians, including children, are being shot.”
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.
A Reuters correspondent saw a young girl with facial injuries walking dazed and shocked across the frontline out of heavily-populated district with a group of neighbors.
Helicopter gunships were assisting the ground thrust, firing at insurgent emplacements in the Old City, a Reuters correspondent reported from a location near the frontlines.
The government advance was carving out escape corridors for civilians marooned behind ISIS lines.
More than 100,000 civilians, of whom half are believed to be children, remain trapped in the crumbling old houses of the Old City, with little food, water or medical treatment.
The urban-warfare forces were leading the campaign to clear the ISIS militiamen from the maze of Old City alleyways, moving on foot house-to-house in locations too cramped for the use of armored combat vehicles.
Aid organizations and Iraqi authorities say ISIS was trying to prevent civilians from leaving so as to use them as human shields. Hundreds of civilians fleeing the Old City have been killed in the past three weeks.
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 neighboring Syria three years ago.
US-supported Iraqi government offensives have wrested back several important urban centers in the country’s west and north from ISIS over the past 18 months.