Iraqi forces opened exit routes for hundreds of civilians to flee the Old City of Mosul on Saturday as they battled to retake the quarter from Islamic State militants mounting a last stand in what was the de facto capital of their self-declared caliphate, Reuters reported.
U.S.-trained urban warfare units were channeling their onslaught along two perpendicular streets that converge in the heart of the Old City, aiming to isolate the jihadist insurgents in four pockets.
The week-old battle in the Old City is turning into the deadliest of the eight-month U.S.-backed campaign to take back the northern city, which fell to the militants in June 2014.
A Reuters correspondent saw a young girl with facial injuries walking dazed and shocked across the frontline out of heavily-populated district with a group of neighbors. All her family was killed when their house collapsed, they said.
The United Nations voiced alarm on Saturday at the rising death toll among civilians in the fighting, saying as many as 12 were killed and hundreds injured on Friday.
“Fighting is very intense in the Old City and civilians are at extreme, almost unimaginable risk. There are reports that thousands, maybe even tens of thousands, of people are being held as human shields (by Islamic State)," Lise Grande, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, said in a statement. "Hundreds of civilians, including children, are being shot."
Iraqi authorities are hoping to declare victory in the northern Iraqi city in the Muslim Eid holiday, which marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, during the next few days.
Helicopter gunships were assisting the ground thrust, firing at insurgent emplacements in the Old City, a Reuters correspondent reported from a location near the frontlines.
The government advance was carving out escape corridors for civilians marooned behind Islamic State lines.
There was a steady trickle of fleeing families on Saturday, some with injured and malnourished children. "My baby only had bread and water for the past eight days," one mother said.