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ISIS launches counterattacks in Mosul as battle moves further into city

Islamic State fighters launched counterattacks Saturday against Iraqi special forces in eastern Mosul, emerging from populated areas deeper in the city to target the troops with mortars and suicide car bombs in clashes that raged late into the night.

Civilians wave white flags as they try to leave Iraq's 2nd-largest city

People displaced by fighting between the Iraqi military and Islamic State militants pass through an alley in Gogjali, on the eastern outskirts of Mosul, Iraq. (Marko Drobnjakovic/Associated Press)

Islamic State fighters launched counterattacks Saturday against Iraqi special forces in eastern Mosul, emerging from populated areas deeper in the city to target the troops with mortars and suicide car bombs in clashes that raged late into the night.

Artillery shelling thundered across the city as snipers traded fire from rooftops and civilians emerged from the front lines waving white flags. There were fresh indications that other residents were being held back by the militants to be used as human shields.

The seesawing battle highlights the challenges ahead for Iraqi forces as they press into more densely populated neighbourhoods of the country's second largest city, where they will not be able to rely as much on airstrikes because of the risk of killing civilians.

"ISIS is in the city centre and we must be very careful as our forces advance," said Maj. Gen. Sami al-Aridi of the Iraqi special forces.

The special forces entered the Gogjali district, on the eastern edge of Mosul, on Tuesday, marking their first major foray into the city itself after more than two weeks of fighting in its rural outskirts.

This satellite image taken Oct. 31, 2016, shows the Islamic State group's defensive line in southern Mosul, Iraq. New satellite images show that Islamic State militants in Mosul have set up daunting defences designed to bog down advancing forces. (Stratfor.com/Associated Press)

ISIS fought back Saturday, pushing the special forces from the southern edge of the neighbourhood. Both sides fired mortar rounds and automatic weapons, while the Iraqi troops also responded with artillery. Snipers duelled from rooftops in residential areas, where most buildings are just two stories high.

Dozens of civilians emerged from their homes over the course of the day, some carrying white flags. Many civilians travelling with children and elderly relatives said they had to walk more than 10 kilometres to reach a camp for the displaced.

Just a few kilometres miles from the clashes, Iraqi officers co-ordinating airstrikes with the U.S.-led coalition watched live drone footage showing a team of ISIS fighters regrouping near the front line.

"They're moving in front of the mosque," an Iraqi soldier said as he called in an airstrike, which moments later flattened a small building. Civilians moved into the area soon thereafter, and the soldiers said the militants appeared to have corralled them there to prevent further strikes.

Islamic State fighters launched counterattacks in the thin strip of territory Iraqi special forces have recaptured in eastern Mosul, highlighting the challenges ahead as the battle moves into more densely populated neighbourhoods. (Felipe Dana/Associated Press)

Civilians at risk 

"ISIS have continued to hide behind civilians and facilitate harm to them," said Col. John Dorrian, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, which has been launching airstrikes to aid the Iraqi advance.

He said Iraqi forces and the coalition "developed a plan that is intended to reduce the possibility of civilian casualties and collateral damage."

But Iraqi Cpt. Naqib Jaff, who was covered in dust after helping to hold positions east of Mosul overnight, said the air support "hasn't been enough" and that the coalition was only striking suicide car bombs.

He said that in previous operations against ISIS-held towns and cities, civilians would be moved away from the front lines, allowing forces to advance. But he said in Mosul, his men have been ordered to keep families inside their homes.

"We've never been in such a situation before. We would be fighting and there would be a family right next to us," he said.

A woman carries white flags as she flees from a zone of conflict between the Iraqi military and Islamic State militants on the eastern outskirts of Mosul, Iraq. (Marko Drobnjakovic/Associated Press)

The government has ordered residents to stay inside, fearing a mass exodus from the city, which is still home to more than 1 million people.

The advance of the Iraqi forces was also slowed by fortifications erected by the extremists in the more than two years since they captured the city. Trenches and berms have turned the streets and alleyways of a neighbourhood once named after former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein into a maze.

Satellite images show rows of concrete barricades, earthen mounds and rubble blocking key routes into the city centre. The images, taken Monday by Stratfor, a U.S.-based private intelligence firm, showed that IS fighters have cleared terrain and levelled buildings around Mosul airport and a nearby former military base on the west bank of the Tigris.

Mosul is the last major ISIS stronghold in Iraq, and driving the militants out would deal a major blow to their self-styled caliphate stretching into neighbouring Syria.

Iraqi forces have made uneven progress since the operation to retake Mosul began on Oct. 17. The territory they have retaken inside Mosul is just a small fraction of the city, which measures more than 15 kilometres across.

On Saturday, Iraqi forces advanced toward the town of Hamam al-Alil, which lies along the Tigris River about 15 kilometres from the southern edge of Mosul. Kurdish television channel Rudaw broadcast live footage of Iraqi troops and armoured vehicles amassing outside the town as an attack helicopter fired rockets.

Up to 1,600 civilians may have been loaded onto trucks and forcibly relocated from Hamam al-Alil to the ISIS-held town of Tal Afar earlier this week, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said Friday. It warned that the captive civilians might be taken as far as Syria to be used as human shields. Another 150 families from Hamam al-Alil were moved to Mosul itself, the UN said.

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