Iraqi forces retake government HQ, museum in Mosul

AFP , Tuesday 7 Mar 2017

An Iraqi special forces soldier stands guard while displaced Iraqis flee their homes, as Iraqi forces battle with Islamic State militants, in western Mosul, Iraq March 7, 2017 (Photo: Reuters)

Iraqi forces said Tuesday they had seized the main government offices in Mosul and its famed museum as they made steady progress in their battle to retake the city's west from Islamist militants.

The advances, which also included the recapture of three neighbourhoods, were announced on the third day of a renewed offensive against the Islamic State (IS) militant group in west Mosul -- the largest remaining urban stronghold in the "caliphate" declared by the Islamist militants in 2014.

Supported by the US-led coalition bombing IS in Iraq and Syria, Iraqi forces began their push against west Mosul on February 19. The advance slowed during several days of bad weather but was renewed on Sunday.

The latest gains have brought government troops and police closer to Mosul's densely populated Old City, where hundreds of thousands of civilians are believed to still be trapped under IS rule.

Iraq's Joint Operations Command (JOC) said in a statement that federal police and the elite Rapid Response unit had been able to "liberate" the headquarters for the Nineveh provincial government.

They also seized control of the Al-Hurriyah bridgehead, it said, in a step towards potentially relinking west Mosul with the city's east, which government forces seized from the Islamist militants earlier in the offensive.

All the bridges crossing the Tigris in Mosul have been damaged or destroyed, and Iraqi forces would either have to repair them or install floating bridges to reconnect the two banks of the river which divides the city.

Officers said Tuesday that security forces had also managed to recapture the Mosul museum, where the Islamist militants destroyed priceless artefacts, releasing a video of their rampage in February 2015.

The video showed militants at the museum knocking statues off their plinths and smashing them to pieces. In another scene, a jackhammer was used to deface a large Assyrian winged bull at an archaeological site in the city.

The Islamist militants' attacks on ancient heritage in Iraq and Syria have sparked widespread international outrage and fears for some of the world's most precious archaeological sites.

The museum was on a police list released Tuesday of sites recaptured from IS, which also included Mosul's central bank building, which the Islamist militants looted along with other banks in 2014, seizing tens of millions of dollars.

The JOC announced Tuesday that Iraqi forces had regained complete control of the west Mosul neighbourhoods of Al-Dawasa, Al-Danadan and Tal al-Ruman, bringing the total number of recaptured areas to 10.

In Al-Danadan, streets were left strewn with rubble and windows blown out of many houses.

"There was mortar rounds falling on us, they fell on the roof and in the courtyard," said Manhal, a 28-year-old resident of the area.

The recent fighting in west Mosul has forced more than 51,000 people to flee their homes, according to the International Organization for Migration.

But the number who have fled is still just a fraction of the 750,000 people believed to have stayed on in west Mosul under IS rule.

Emerging from the chaos of the civil war in neighbouring Syria, IS seized control of large parts of Syria and Iraq in mid-2014, declaring its Islamic "caliphate" and committing widespread atrocities.

The US-led coalition launched air strikes against the Islamist militants in both countries several months later and has backed both Iraqi forces and fighters in Syria battling IS.

The Islamist militants have been pushed from most of the territory they once seized but remain in control of key bastions including west Mosul and the caliphate's de facto Syrian capital Raqa.

In Syria, they have faced offensives by three rival forces.

Turkish troops and their Syrian rebel allies have pushed south from the Turkish border and driven IS out of the northern town of Al-Bab.

Syrian government troops have driven east from second city Aleppo with Russian support and seized a swathe of countryside from the Islamist militants .

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor of the conflict, said Tuesday that regime forces had neared a key water pumping station for Aleppo and a military airport under IS control.

"Regime forces are now on the outskirts of the Jarrah military airport and the town of Al-Khafsah and the water pumping station," it said.

A US-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters has been advancing on Raqa and on Monday reached the Euphrates River cutting the main road to the partly IS-held city of Deir Ezzor downstream.

World powers have vowed increased cooperation in tackling the global threat from IS, which from its base in Syria and Iraq has organised or inspired a series of deadly attacks in foreign cities.

Talks were taking place on Tuesday between the Turkish, Russian and US military chiefs in the southern Turkish city of Antalya on issues including cooperation in Iraq and Syria.

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