Islamist militants occupy civilian homes as Mosul battle rages

AFP , Sunday 4 Jun 2017

Iraqi women wait to receive food in the Al-Akrab area after leaving their homes in west Mosul on June 2, 2017, as government forces continue their offensive to retake the city from Islamic State (IS) group fighters (Photo: AFP)

After Islamist militants turned the roof of his house into a sniper position, Owayid Mohammed and his family fled west Mosul in an escape that made him feel "reborn".

"The Dawaesh took my house... and brought four snipers to the roof," said Mohammed, using a pejorative name for members of the Islamic State (IS) militant group which seized the city in 2014.

"We stayed near them for about a week and moved from house to house," the 75-year-old man said.

"When we saw that the army was getting close to us, we trusted in God" and fled, Mohammed walking with the aid of a crutch.

He and his family joined hundreds of thousands of people who have fled their homes since the massive operation to retake Mosul from IS was launched last October.

Iraqi forces have since retaken all but a handful of areas around Mosul's Old City, but the Islamist militants are fighting in densely populated areas, and have used civilians as human shields at various points in the battle.

The United Nations warned last week that up to 200,000 civilians may still be trapped in IS-held areas, facing shortages of food, water and medicine as well as deadly danger from the battle for the city.

Mohammed and his family were in some ways lucky they were not forced to stay in their house after IS deployed the snipers -- circumstances that led to one of the deadliest single incidents for civilians during the Mosul campaign.

In Mosul al-Jadida, another area on the city's western side, the US carried out an air strike targeting two snipers on the roof of building.

The blast detonated IS explosive material in the building, killing 101 civilians inside it, while four more died in an adjacent building.

Like many civilians who have fled Mosul, Mohammed recalled with sadness the circumstances people face in the city.

"In our lives, we have never seen something like this... For four days, we were sleeping without eating," he said.

But his sadness quickly dissipated: "I was able to get out, and I consider myself to have been reborn."

He is not alone in celebrating his escape.

"I came out of the fire to paradise... I feel like I am a queen," said Sara Adham, another septuagenarian who had recently left Mosul.

She fled with her son and daughter days after IS stormed her house, which was on the front line with Iraqi forces.

"They removed the door of the house and entered the upper floor while we were hiding in the basement," Adham said.

"My son heard a noise and I said to him that maybe it was a cat, and after the noise got louder, I went up to look and found one of the Dawaesh in front of me, and he demanded that we leave the house."

Adham tried to refuse, but IS threatened to kill her son, so they fled.

Mohammed Abdullah, 43, said IS "tightened their patrols and restricted our movements, threatening to move into our houses if they suspected we intended to escape".

"I agreed with my neighbours to leave whatever the cost, because the situation was intolerable."

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