Suicide bomber hid himself among civilians fleeing Mosul

Iraqi forces are trying to open up an escape route for civilians trapped in Mosul's old City, and announce on loudspeaker when it's safe for them to flee.

Iraqi civilians and forces members on an armoured vehicle following a suicide bomber attack as people were escaping the Old City of Mosul, on June 23, 2017. Ahmad Al Rubaye / AFP
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MOSUL // A suicide bomber blew himself up on Friday among civilians fleeing Mosul’s Old City, where Iraqi forces are gaining ground against militants mounting a fierce but desperate defence.

Major Ahmed Hashem, an Iraqi army medic said 12 people were killed in the attack, which took place in the Mashahda neighbourhood of the Old City. More than 20 wounded, including women and children, were taken to a field hospital.

The definitive casualty count was not yet known as the attack site was not fully cleared, said a colonel in the army’s 16th infantry division. “The suicide bomber infiltrated a group of displaced people and blew himself up among them before reaching our troops,” he said.

In western Iraq, at least eight civilians and a soldier were killed by another suicide bomber in Habbaniyah, in the desert province of Anbar. He was one of a group of four suicide bombers who infiltrated a neighbourhood of Al Baghdadi, a town on the Euphrates River, police said.

The army trapped and killed three of the would-be bombers in a house by detonating their explosive belts with gunfire; the fourth stayed hidden and blew himself up later in a crowd.

About 100,000 civilians remain trapped with little food, water or medicine in the Old City of Mosul, where ISIL militants are using them as human shields. The security forces have been on the lookout for Iraqi ISIL members attempting to flee the Old City death trap by blending in with the population, while the Chechen, French and other foreign jihadists stay behind to mount a suicidal last stand.

Iraqi forces battled their way along two streets that meet in the heart of Mosul’s Old City on Friday, aiming to open up routes for civilians to escape. The two roads cross in the centre of the Old City. When the troops reach this point, they will have isolated the remaining ISIL fighters in four pockets.

The elite Counter Terrorism Service is advancing along Al-Faruq Street, from north to south, and Nineveh Street, from east to west.

“The aim is to open ways for civilians to evacuate, we give them indications by loudspeaker when it’s possible,” an Iraqi military spokesman said.

American-trained urban warfare units are leading the fight in the maze of narrow alleyways of the Old City, the last district in the hands of the extremists, and Iraqi authorities are hoping to declare victory on Eid.

Military analysts say the advance has gathered pace since ISIL blew up the 850-year-old Grand Al Nuri mosque and its famous leaning minaret affectionately nicknamed Al Hadba, meaning “the hunchback”, on Wednesday. Its destruction has given troops more freedom in attack as they no longer need worry about damaging the ancient site.

It was in the Al Nuri mosque that ISIL’s leader, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, proclaimed its “caliphate” over parts of Iraq and Syria three years ago.

According to Iraqi state news, 7,000 civilians were brought out of the Old City on Friday. Some were injured and some had been carried on army Humvees to rear positions where they were given food and water.

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) reported an influx of wounded people to its clinic in the west of the city.

The Iraqi government once hoped to take Mosul by the end of last year but the campaign has dragged on as the militants reinforced positions in civilian areas, launched suicide car and motorbike bombs, laid booby traps and kept up barrages of sniper and mortar fire. The military said it had defused dozens of booby traps as troops advanced on Friday.

The area still under ISIL control comprises about two square kilometres along the western bank of the Tigris river which bisects Mosul.

The Iraqi prime minister, Haider Al Abadi, said ISIL’s decision to blow up Al Nuri mosque was an admission of defeat.

The fall of Mosul would mark the end of the Iraqi half of the militants’ “caliphate”, but ISIL would remain in control of large areas of both Iraq and Syria.

Baghdadi was reported to have left Mosul in March and believed to be hiding in the Iraqi-Syrian border area. There has been no confirmation of Russian reports that he was killed in an air strike in Syria last month.

* Reuters and Agence France Presse