An Iraq army soldier holds a position on a vehicle in Qayyarah, 60 kilometres south of Mosul, on October 20. Photograph: (AFP)
The counter-terrorism service, Iraq's most battle-seasoned force, retook full control of Bartalla, 15 kms east of Mosul
Making further advances in their bid to capture Mosul from the Islamic State, Iraqi forces on Thursday gained control of the town of Bartalla, less than 15 kms from Mosul, AFP reported. They are, however, still some distance from city limits of Mosul, IS's last major stronghold in Iraq.
"I announce to the people of Bartalla and Mosul we have complete control over Bartalla," Taleb Sheghati al-Kenani, commander of Iraq's battle-seasoned Counter-Terrorism Service, told the press from the town. "Its residents, its churches and all of its infrastructure are now under the control of CTS."
The IS had seized the small Christian town when it established their 'caliphate' in Iraq in 2014, forcing around 120,000 Iraqi Christians to flee their homes.
Further North, Kurdish peshmerga fighters opened a new front against the IS with a multiple-pronged assault on the town of Bashiqa.
"The objectives are to clear a number of nearby villages and secure control of strategic areas to further restrict ISIL's movements," the peshmerga command said.
To the south, Iraqi forces were making steady gains, working their way up the Tigris Valley and meeting small numbers of fleeing civilians heading the other way. Dozens of men, women and children have escaped from the village of Mdaraj, south of Mosul, the smoke from the fires lit by IS to escape notice, providing them cover.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, meanwhile, announced in Paris that the four-day-old offensive was "advancing faster than expected". France and Iraq were co-chairing the meeting on the future of Mosul, AFP reported.
"We are advancing faster than we had expected and planned," he said by video link. French President Francois Hollande told the meeting that jihadists were already leaving for Raqa, their stronghold in neighbouring Syria, adding, "We cannot allow those who were in Mosul to evaporate," Hollande said.
Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, was seized by IS in 2014.
Iraqi forces and the peshmerga have not divulged casualty figures in this particular offensive, AFP reported. A US service member was killed north of Mosul after an improvised explosive device exploded on Thursday, the coalition said.
The IS, however, released a video on Thursday showing the bodies of what it claimed were two peshmerga, hung by their feet from a bridge in central Mosul.
UN warns of humanitarian crisis
The UN fears a humanitarian emergency once the almost a million people still trapped inside Mosul are forced to flee by the fighting, AFP reports. No major outflows of civilians have been reported so far.
Some Mosul residents who fled before the start of the offensive have crossed into neighbouring Syria and are now sheltered at a camp in Al-Hawl. Around 500 people had entered the camp in the past two weeks and 2,000-3,000 Iraqis were waiting at the border, AFP quoted a Kurdish official at the camp as saying.
The camp is being expanded to accomodate an estimated 30,000 displaced Iraqis when the Mosul battle intensifies, AFP reports.
IS's rule has seen some of the worst war crimes in recent history and the task of reconciling all the components of the area's complex religious and ethnic mosaic is daunting.
'Revenge killing' by the IS is likely to be an issue in the days and months ahead, AFP reports citing the findings of Soufan consultancy. "A massive effort will be required to begin to heal what is a truly fractured city and society."
(WION with inputs from AFP)