Frightened civilians flee as Iraq forces battle IS in Mosul
MOSUL, Iraq: Frightened Iraqi civilians hurry down a muddy street in Mosul as gunshots echo through the neighbourhood and a helicopter wheels overhead, firing a barrage of bullets towards militants below.
Others choose to stay, hanging white flags from their homes and periodically peering out as Iraqi forces battle the Islamic State group for control of the country´s second city.
Children, some of them carrying plastic bags of belongings slung over their shoulders, are among those fleeing, as is a woman who weeps as she walks along the street.
Dozens more people move along the road leading away from the southeastern edge of the city, heading to a place where they pile into buses painted in police camouflage to be driven to safety.
“There was more movement of families (Friday),” says Lieutenant Colonel Hisham Abdulkadhim of Iraq´s elite Rapid Response Division, a special forces unit that directed civilians to shelter as it advanced.
While the worst-case scenario of a million-plus people fleeing their homes during the battle to retake Mosul has yet to materialise, more than 120,000 people have been displaced since the operation was launched on October 17.
Mosul crackles with gunfire and explosions as the Rapid Response forces fight their way north alongside contingents from other units.
The advance is quick but careful, with an Iraqi army Humvee mounted with an anti-tank missile launcher on hand to target car bombs and a bulldozer that erects dirt barricades to block their approach.
Humvees provide cover for those on foot, who move alongside, weapons at the ready.
Helicopters prowl over the city firing bursts of gunfire and rockets, while the jihadists take aim at their aerial tormentors with small arms.
Some civilians open their doors to see what is happening, but the warning from Iraqi forces is always the same: go inside, close the door.
There are myriad dangers: a running infantry battle, jihadists with no qualms about endangering civilians, and air strikes, artillery fire and large, unguided rockets targeting the militants.
Some of those who stayed in their homes in Mosul assist the advancing Iraqi forces.