US-backed Iraqi forces stormed the Mosul international airport and a nearby military base on its southern outskirts, in a bid to recapture Iraq’s second largest city from the control of the Islamic State militants.
Since the ouster of the Islamic State from eastern Mosul last month, Iraqi forces have advanced in sparsely populated outlying areas. But fighting is set to intensify as they near the teeming inner city of western Mosul which houses roughly 750,000 civilians.
The US military commander in Iraq has said he believes US-backed forces will retake both of IS’s urban bastions – Mosul and Raqqa in neighbouring Syria – within the next six months, which would end the jihadists’ ambitions to territorial rule three years after they declared a “caliphate”.
Iraqi federal police and elite interior ministry units known as Rapid Response have made rapid progress towards western Mosul in a sweep upwards through stony desert terrain from the south since launching the offensive’s second phase on Sunday (February 19).
Commanders of the Rapid Response Units said that the forces have cleared the village near the airport of bombs and explosives to prepare the way for troops to advance and storm the airport.
“Engineer units of the Rapid Response Units and the Federal Police have fully cleared today the Sayrmoon village and we will now advance into the airport,” Brigadier Colonel Mehdi Abbad, commander of the 3rd Brigade, Rapid Response Unit had said.
To hinder the advance of the Iraqi forces, the militants had destroyed the bridge leading to the airport.
“Daesh is putting up weak resistance and its members have started to flee toward populated parts south of the city and are using civilians as human shields,” said Brigadier Colonel Abbas al-Jibouri, Chief -of -Staff of Rapid Response Units Command.
Iraqi forces had reached the “vicinity” of Mosul’s international airport on Monday (February 20).
A senior Iraqi official said the airport and Gozhlani base had been heavily damaged by U.S.-led air strikes to wear down IS militants ahead of the offensive. He said Iraqi forces did not anticipate much resistance at the airport or base especially as the area was exposed to air strikes and artillery bombardment.
(With inputs from agencies)