Near Hammam Al-Alil (Iraq) Iraqi troops advancing towards Mosul battled on Saturday for the last town left between them and the Islamic State stronghold to the north, which is already under assault from special forces fighting inside the city`s eastern districts.
Saturday`s attack on Hammam al-Alil, about 15 km (10 miles) south of Mosul, targeted a force of at least 70 Islamic State fighters in the Tigris river town, commander of the Mosul operations Major-General Najm al-Jabouri said.
Jabouri said the assault began around 10 a.m. (0700 GMT) and some militants had tried to escape across the river, although others put up heavy resistance and the troops had thwarted three attempted suicide car bombings.
"(The battle) is very important - it`s the last town for us before Mosul," Jabouri told reporters. Iraqi helicopters were supporting the army, he said, backed also by jets from a U.S.-led air coalition which had been hitting Islamic State 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.
The army and accompanying security forces aim to push the southern front up to Mosul to join troops and special forces that broke into the city`s east this week, taking six districts and carving out a foothold in the militants` Iraq bastion.
Recapturing Mosul would effectively crush the Iraqi half of a self-proclaimed caliphate declared by Islamic State 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.
"WE WILL LIBERATE YOU"
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, speaking on a visit to the eastern battle front, said he brought "a message to the residents inside Mosul who are hostages in the hands of Daesh (Islamic State) - we will liberate you soon".
Abadi said progress in the nearly three-week-old campaign, and the advance into Mosul itself, had been faster than expected. But in the face of fierce resistance, which has included suicide car bombings, sniper fire and roadside bombs, he suggested that progress may be intermittent.
"Our heroic forces will not retreat and will not be broken. Maybe in the face of terrorist acts, criminal acts, there will be some delay," he said.
So far the area which the army says it controls in east Mosul remains only a small part of the city which was home to 2 million people before Islamic State took over in 2014. More than 1 million remain in the city - by far the largest under Islamic State control in either Iraq or Syria.
A Reuters correspondent in the village of Ali Rash, about 7 km (4 miles) southeast of Mosul, saw smoke rising from eastern districts of the city on Saturday, while air strikes, artillery and gunfire could be heard.
The United Nations has warned of a possible exodus of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Mosul. So far only 31,000 have been displaced, of which more than 3,000 have already returned to their homes, said William Lacy Swing, head of the International Organization for Migration.
"The numbers are not as large so far as had been expected. We`d heard figures all the way up to 500,000 or 700,000," he told Reuters.
"We`re trying to prepare accordingly, but it`s very difficult to do contingency planning with any level of accuracy because we don`t know what they’re going to find when they get inside". In Hammam al-Alil, the jihadists had taken hundreds of people as human shields, although Jabouri said it was not clear how many people were left in the town. Before Islamic State swept in more than two years ago, Hammam al-Alil and outlying villages had a population of 65,000.
As well as forcing residents to remain as they came under attack in Hammam al-Alil, Islamic State fighters retreating north in the last two weeks have forced thousands to march with them as cover from air strikes, villagers have told Reuters.
The United Nations said the militants transported 1,600 abducted civilians from Hammam al-Alil to the town of Tal Afar, west of Mosul, on Tuesday and took another 150 families from the town to Mosul the next day.
They told residents to hand over children, especially boys aged over nine, in an apparent recruitment drive for child soldiers, U.N. human rights spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said.
Jabouri said a man he described as a senior Islamic State 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 by car.
Many of the remaining militants were non-Iraqis, he said. "There are at least 70 Daesh fighters in the town. The majority are foreign fighters, so they don`t know where to go. They are just moving from place to place."