Residents of Mosul said Islamic State was using civilians as human shields as Iraqi and Kurdish forces captured outlying villages in their advance on the jihadists’ stronghold.
The leader of Islamic State was reported to be among thousands of hardline militants still in the city, suggesting the group would go to great lengths to repel the coalition, Reuters reports.
With attacking forces still 20 to 50 kilometers (12-30 miles) away, residents reached by telephone said more than 100 families had started moving from southern and eastern suburbs most exposed to the offensive to more central parts of the city.
Islamic State militants were preventing people fleeing Mosul, they told the news agency. One said the jihadists directed some towards buildings they had recently used themselves.
“It’s quite clear Daesh (Islamic State) has started to use civilians as human shields by allowing families to stay in buildings likely to be targeted by air strikes,” said Abu Mahir, who lives near the city’s university.
Like other residents contacted in the city, he refused to give his full name, but Abdul Rahman Waggaa, a member of the exiled Provincial Council of Nineveh of which Mosul is the capital, corroborated his account to Reuters.
The fall of Mosul would signal the defeat of the ultra-hardline Sunni jihadists in Iraq but could also lead to land grabs and sectarian bloodletting between groups which fought one another after the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
Around 1.5 million people still live in Mosul and the International Organization for Migration said Islamic State may use tens of thousands of residents as human shields to hold onto their last city stronghold in Iraq.
The IOM said there was a likelihood of chemical attacks by the jihadists, who had used such weapons previously against Iraqi Kurdish forces.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said safe routes had been secured for civilians who wanted to leave Mosul and it was the duty of the US-led coalition to prevent Islamic State fighters from escaping into nearby Syria.
The Syrian army, meanwhile, accused the coalition of planning to allow Islamic State militants to flee across the border.
US President Barack Obama said it would be a difficult fight but Islamic State “will be defeated in Mosul”.
The Iraqi army and Peshmerga forces from autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan began moving towards the city at dawn on Monday under air cover from a US-led coalition set up after Islamic State swept into Iraq from Syria in 2014.
Islamic State said on Monday its fighters had targeted the attacking forces with 10 suicide bombs and that their foes had surrounded five villages but not taken them. None of the reports could be independently verified.
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