NEW: Iraqi forces near key area of western Mosul housing government offices
Iraqis secure Mosul airport and military base, but retaking western part of city will take time
Iraqi forces are approaching a key area in western Mosul housing government buildings as they push beyond the city’s airport and a nearby military camp, Iraqi officials said Friday.
They’re in the second phase of a months-long operation to clear ISIS militants from the key Iraqi city.
“Our forces are only 1 kilometer from al-Dawasa neighborhood,” Lt. Gen. Raid Shakir Jaudat of the Iraqi Federal Police told CNN.
The area is home to the city’s police directorate, courthouse, main military hospital, Turkish Consulate and the Mosul Museum.
Mosul International Airport and the nearby Ghazlani military camp on the outskirts of southwestern Mosul have been fully liberated, the Iraqi Joint Operations Command said Friday.
More than 50 ISIS militants were killed and scores wounded in Friday’s operation Friday, Jaudat said. Iraqi forces also destroyed 25 improvised explosive devices and seized several weapons as they liberated the first residential neighborhood in western Mosul, he said.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi congratulated the armed forces on their victories against “defeated Daesh terrorist gangs,” using an Arabic name for ISIS.
“We will exert the utmost effort to rescue the civilians and protect them, provide safe corridors for their exit, receive and (transfer) them to the safe camps.” Abadi said in a statement from his media office.
The International Rescue Committee warned this part of the operation could be the “most dangerous phase” for civilians as Iraqi troops seek to secure densely populated areas amid ISIS resistance.
“This will be a terrifying moment for the 750,000 people still in the west of the city, and there is a real danger that the battle will be raging around them for weeks and possibly months to come,” said Jason Kajer, the Iraq acting country director for the humanitarian group.
“Everything must be done to keep civilians out of the firing line, and as Iraqi forces reach individual neighborhoods, people must be given the opportunity to escape the city safely.”
ISIS militants use tunnels to escape
On Sunday, Iraqi forces launched a new bid to retake the western parts of the city after declaring the east had been liberated last month.
The east and west is divided by the Tigris River, and US-led coalition airstrikes have damaged all five bridges connecting the two sides in an effort to contain the militants in the west.
A CNN crew near the airport reported an intense bombardment Friday on ISIS targets in the southern suburbs.
All day, attack helicopters have been firing missiles and heavy machine guns into the city, the crew said. A group of American spotters was providing targeting information to the helicopters. Iraqi troops could also be seen heading toward the front line.