Security

Civilians trickle towards Iraqi forces in new Mosul assault

By AFP

Civilians fleeing from western Mosul, some carrying makeshift white flags, approach the recently captured Albu Seif village where Iraqi forces were waiting for them. [Ahmed Moussa and Rania Sanjar/AFP]

On the edge of the village of Albu Seif, captured late Monday (February 20th) from the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) by Iraqi forces advancing on western Mosul, a federal policeman signaled to fleeing civilians.

The small group of villagers, some carrying makeshift white flags, walked slowly along a dirt road in the valley below, metres from the western bank of the Tigris River.

They were the first civilians to approach Albu Seif since it was captured, and the mood among security forces hovered between welcome and suspicion as the group walked closer.

Overhead a drone belonging to Iraq's Rapid Response force buzzed as it flew back and forth over the villagers, monitoring them for weapons or explosives.

image

Iraqi families who fled the front line gather in the village of Albu Seif, south of Mosul, during an offensive by Iraqi forces to retake the western side of the city from the 'Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant' on February 21st. [Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP]

As the handful of men and young boys arrived, the police ordered them to halt and lift their shirts to prove they were not wearing explosive belts.

Then two officers climbed over an earth berm and patted them down by hand, examining their ID cards before welcoming them into the village.

"We have been trapped at home for the last two days, we could not even go out because of the bombing," said Ibrahim Ahmed, 45.

He said Iraqi ISIL members had already fled his village of Khraybeh as the offensive began Sunday, but foreign fighters remained until Monday night.

"Last night they forced their way into the house to hide from the aircraft... they forced their way in at gunpoint," he told AFP.

His tiny village occupies part of the few kilometres now separating Iraqi forces from their next targets in the battle for Mosul, including Mosul airport.

After a four-month battle to capture eastern Mosul, Iraq's government announced the second phase of the battle for the city on Sunday.

So far a mixture of Iraqi army and police units are advancing from the south, moving quickly through the relatively unpopulated surrounding countryside.

Displaced but relieved

In Albu Seif on Tuesday, the atmosphere was largely jovial and relaxed, despite the occasional boom of mortar fire and the shrapnel holes gouged into the walls of homes now commandeered by Iraqi forces.

Overhead warplanes roared in the blue sky, and the occasional column of smoke could be seen rising from Mosul in the distance.

The units are on guard for the possibility of an ISIL counterattack or an attempt by the extremists to infiltrate by hiding among fleeing civilians.

First Lt. Ahmed Najah of the elite Rapid Response unit was operating the small white drone that hovered over the arriving civilians looking for anything suspicious.

"The civilians you saw just now are the first displaced people who have come towards us," he said.

"We did surveillance with the drone to discover the enemy's movements... (and) we also saw the movement of the displaced towards us," he told AFP.

"We can also see if ISIL fighters are hiding among them... I try to lower the drone, I get it as low as possible to them, to see what they are carrying."

After checking the arrivals and offering them cigarettes and water, one soldier agreed to allow a villager to use his phone to call his relatives and tell them to leave.

The man shouted with relief into the mobile as he reached his family.

"We are here, we are here with the army and they say to come," he said.

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