BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Islamic State militants are planting bombs near front doors in Mosul to prevent civilians leaving, a federal police commander and witnesses said on Wednesday, as Iraqi forces make their final push against the jihadists after seven months of fighting.
Trapped in a shrinking area of the city, the militants are increasingly using the several hundred thousand civilians under their control as human shields to avoid being targeted or perhaps tarnish what Iraqi leaders describe as imminent victory.
Backed by a U.S.-led coalition, Iraqi forces have made rapid gains since opening a new front in northwest Mosul this month and have now dislodged Islamic State from all but about 12 square km (5 square miles) of the city.
The militants, however, still control the Old City, where they are expected to make their last stand in the densely populated, narrow streets that are impassible for armoured vehicles, forcing Iraqi forces to advance on foot.
The Iraqi government is pushing to declare victory by the holy month of Ramadan - expected to begin on May 27 - even if pockets of resistance remain in the Old City, according to military commanders.
Lieutenant-General Abdul Ghani al-Assadi told state TV his elite Counter Terrorism Services (CTS) were advancing steadily in the Rifaie and Najjar districts, aiming to reach the western bank of Tigris river and complete the Old City’s encirclement.
“God willing the coming hours we will complete our assigned task,” he said on Wednesday.
The militants had deployed 30 suicide car bombs against his troops in Mosul over the past two days, he said.
In the Siha district, Assadi said, Islamic State had chained civilians by the hands and used them as human shields to move around. “We saw them moving with their weapons in the midst of the civilians but we did not strike them,” he said.
The civilians were unchained and released once the militants reached cover, Assadi said.
Hundreds if not more civilians have been killed under bombardment by the U.S.-led coalition and Iraqi airforce during the Mosul campaign and the rest are eating weeds and boiled wheat grain to surivive as food runs out.
Fearful of triggering bombs if they open the front door, civilians are fleeing through the same holes Islamic State knocked through interior walls to move around the city without being targeted from the sky.
The number of people fleeing Mosul has surged since the re-intensification of hostilities this month.
Nearly 10,000 people were displaced from the city on Tuesday, according to Iraqi government figures, joining an exodus of nearly 700,000 who have left Mosul since the start of the campaign last October.
Two civilians were killed when they returned to the Islah al-Ziraei district days after it was retaken by Iraqi forces when they accidentally triggered a bomb that Islamic State had planted to prevent them leaving their home.
Writing by Isabel Coles; Editing by Louise Ireland