Starving Mosul civilians tell of battle's horrors
Soon after sunrise a large dark circle of smoke appeared like a halo over Mosul's Old City - a sign to advancing troops that Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) is not about to give it up without a fight.
The Iraqi army had hoped to surprise the jihadists by launching an operation to recapture the historic quarter under cover of darkness on Thursday night.
But Isil had a surprise of its own - just as daylight broke it set fire to miles of cloth sheets that had been covering the market, as well as cars and even houses, in order to obscure the view for coalition pilots.
Then came the counterattack.
Waves of suicide car bombs and mortar fire so fierce that the elite police units were forced to turn back and hold their position on the outskirts.
"Just when you think they are looking weak, they come back stronger," Sgt Alaa Hassan, from a position 4km south of Mosul, said.
The battle for the Old City is expected to be the toughest yet. It is densely populated with narrow streets, and troops will have to abandon their Humvees for house-to-house fighting.
Some 50,000 civilians have fled since the offensive on western Mosul began last month.
But more than half a million are thought to still be trapped in the 25pc of the city still in Isil hands.
In the past two days this reporter has seen thousands flee, some with stories of being used as shields by jihadists who threatened to kill them if they tried to run.
Many had hunkered down in the basements of their homes for days without food or water as the battle raged above them and, yesterday, they walked wearily through the wreckage of burned-out cars and craters in the al-Mansour neighbourhood and up the hill to a screening centre where men were separated from women and children and loaded on to trucks.
One woman picked up her baby and lifted his T-shirt, his ribs clearly visible and his stomach concave.
"I have had nothing and so I haven't been producing milk," Umm Laith (26) said.
Her older children ran to the soldiers who were handing out bread, but her infant son was too weak to eat the scraps they brought back.
The Iraqi army, under pressure to finish the operation by summer, has been storming through areas at a rate of one every few days.
This week it captured the provincial government buildings, the central bank branch and a museum where militants had filmed themselves destroying priceless statues in 2015.
it is now just a matter of yards from the al-Nuri Mosque where, in July 2014, Isil leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi first proclaimed the so-called "Caliphate" in his only public appearance.
However, this speed of advance has taken its toll. The army was forced to retreat earlier this week after trying to take the government buildings with too few men, so repeating a mistake that caused the deaths of up to 100 troops at the al-Salam hospital, on the eastern side of the city, in December.
Three months after it was liberated, Isil is still launching attacks on the eastern side of this city which is divided by the Tigris river.
A suicide bomber blew himself up inside a restaurant last month, killing four and wounding dozens and, yesterday, Isil fired rockets at two mosques in the east as hundreds gathered for prayers.
"Daesh [the Arabic acronym for Isil] knows they are losing and they are lashing out at freed areas to punish the people," Sgt Hassan said.
"They will not win this war, but [for us] it [is] about saving the lives of as many people as we can before they are defeated." (© Daily Telegraph London)