A group of Iraqi civilians are seen on their way fleeing from western Mosul, Iraq, on March 29, 2017. Iraqi forces on Wednesday pushed further toward the old city center of the western side of Mosul amid fierce clashes with Islamic State (IS) militants, the Iraqi military said. The troops have been fighting street by street in Mosul's old city center, but they were slowed by the heavy resistance of IS militants and the presence of some 500,000 people living in the old houses with narrow allies. (Xinhua/Yaser Jawad)
MOSUL, Iraq, March 29 (Xinhua) -- Iraqi security forces on Wednesday pushed further toward the old city center of the western side of Mosul amid fierce clashes with Islamic State (IS) militants, the Iraqi military said.
The commandos of the Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) advanced in Yarmouk neighborhood in west of the old city center and freed most of the neighborhood after heavy back-and-forth fighting in the past few days, an army source told Xinhua on condition of anonymity.
Elite CTS troops continued their heavy clashes against IS militants in several nearby neighborhoods, as they advanced closer to Mosul's western edge and densely populated old city center, where hundreds of thousands of civilians are believed to be still trapped under IS rule.
Meanwhile, the federal police and interior ministry special forces, known as Rapid Response, took full control over Qadheeb al-Ban area and Malab football stadium in the western edge of the old city center, after days of fierce clashes against IS militants, Lt. Gen. Raid Shakir Jawdat, commander of the federal police forces, said in a statement.
The latest advance is part of the troops efforts to besiege the extremist militants in the areas around the historical al-Nuri Mosque in the middle of Mosul's old city center, Jawdat said.
"The federal police forces are pursuing a tactic that restricting the use bombs and increasing sniper fire against terrorist militants holed up at densely populated in old city center," Jawdat said, adding "the federal police artillery are only shelling selected targets on unpopulated areas."
The troops have been fighting street by street and house by house to recapture the historical al-Nuri Mosque in the middle of Mosul's old city center, but they were slowed by the heavy resistance of IS militants and the presence of some 500,000 people living in the old houses with narrow allies.
The mosque with its famous leaning minaret, which gave the city its nickname "al-Hadbaa" or "the hunchback," has a symbolic value as it was the place where IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the cross-border "caliphate" in large areas in Iraq and Syria in his sole public appearance in July 2014.
Jawdat's announcement of new tactic came after media reports said that hundreds of civilians were buried under the debris of their houses by heavy bombardments of U.S.-led coalition and Iraqi aircraft during the past few days.
On Friday, the United Nations expressed concerns about reports of civilian casualties in Mosul, and urged the parties of the conflict to avoid such casualties.
"We are stunned by this terrible loss of life and wish to express our deepest condolences to the many families that have reportedly been impacted by this tragedy," a UN statement quoted Lise Grande, the humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, as saying.
"Nothing in this conflict is more important than protecting civilians. All parties of the conflict are obliged to do everything possible to protect civilians. This means that combatants cannot use people as human shields and cannot imperil lives through indiscriminate use of fire power," Grande said.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is also commander-in-chief of the armed forces, announced the start of an offensive on Feb. 19 to drive extremist militants out of the western side of Mosul, locally known as the right bank of the Tigris River which bisects the city.
Late in January, Abadi declared the liberation of Mosul's eastern side, or the left bank of Tigris, after over 100 days of fighting IS militants.
However, the western part of Mosul, with its narrow streets and a population of between 750,000 and 800,000, appears to be a bigger challenge to the Iraqi forces.
Mosul, 400 km north of Iraqi capital Baghdad, has been under IS control since June 2014, when government forces abandoned their posts and fled, enabling IS militants to take control of parts of Iraq's northern and western regions.