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Iraqi forces make gains in bid to retake Mosul as humanitarian crisis looms

A sharp rise in the number of people forced to flee is also expected as the military forces claimed to have secured 20 villages on the outskirts of the city. Photograph: (Reuters)

Reuters Geneva, Switzerland Oct 18, 2016, 10.04 AM (IST)

Iraqi forces claimed making substantial gains as tens of thousands of fighters advanced on Mosul Tuesday in an offensive to retake the city from the Islamic State militants.

With the crucial battle in its second day, the armed forces said they had secured some 20 villages on the outskirts of the city in the first 24 hours of the operation. Massive columns of smoke rose from burning oil wells near the government forces' main staging base in Qayyarah.

"Many villages have already been liberated," said Sabah al-Numan, the spokesman of the elite counter-terrorism service. 

Commanders said progress was being made as fighters pushed on two main fronts, from Qayyarah and the east, towards the city. In the south, forces inching forward along the Tigris river were training their sights on a village called Hammam al-Alil, while units east of Mosul were close to Qaraqosh, once Iraq's biggest Christian town.

The US military, which is providing air support to the government and Kurdish forces, said they looked "ahead of schedule" but warned the battle would be long and difficult. The US-led coalition said strikes destroyed 52 targets on the first day of the operation.

Humanitarian crisis looms

Aid groups are bracing for a potentially massive humanitarian crisis with the start of the long-awaited assault. 

"Humanitarian partners are focusing on preparing shelter in three priority areas south of Mosul where the first displaced families from Mosul will be accommodated," the United Nations humanitarian agency said. 

Tens of thousands of civilians could be used as human shields by Islamic State fighters defending their stronghold of Mosul, the International Organization for Migration said on Tuesday.

IOM's chief of mission in Iraq, Thomas Weiss, said he also expected a sharp rise in the number of people forced to flee the city.

The agency had started procuring gas masks, fearing a chemical weapons attack, but had obtained very few so far.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) called on all sides in the battle to spare civilians and allow wounded to be evacuated.

The ICRC has reinforced medical centres, including to treat any patients contaminated by chemical weapons, Robert Mardini, regional director for the Near and Middle East, told a Geneva news briefing.

The neutral aid agency hoped to monitor treatment of people detained or screened by the Iraqi government as they flee the northern city held by Islamic State, he said.

The ICRC is in contact with Iraqi and Kurdish authorities and the US-led coalition, but still hoped to have a dialogue with Islamic State forces about "the basic rules of war".

Future of Mosul

An international meeting on the future of Mosul will be held in Paris on Thursday. French foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said, "we must anticipate, plan for the 'day after', and the stabilisation of Mosul after the military battle." Ayrault added that Iran, despite its influence in the region, was not invited to the talks.

Some 30,000 federal forces are leading the offensive, backed by air and ground support from a 60-nation US-led coalition, in what is expected to be a long assault on the militants group's last major Iraqi stronghold.

But even the recapture of Mosul will not mark the end of the war against IS, which is likely to increasingly turn to insurgent tactics as it loses more ground.

(WION with inputs from agencies)

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