Wednesday 22 February 2017

Mass grave off 100 decapitated bodies discovered near Mosul

Balint Szlanko and Susannah George

Published 07/11/2016 | 21:27

Smoke rises during clashes between Peshmerga forces and Islamic State militants in the town of Bashiqa, east of Mosul, during an operation to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, November 7, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
Smoke rises during clashes between Peshmerga forces and Islamic State militants in the town of Bashiqa, east of Mosul, during an operation to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, November 7, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari

The Iraqi military says it has found some 100 decapitated bodies in a mass grave south of the Islamic State-held city of Mosul.

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The spokesman for the Joint Military Command, Brigadier General Yahya Rasool, said the bodies were discovered on Monday near the agricultural college in the town of Hamam al-Alil. Most were reduced to skeletons.

A forensics team from Baghdad will investigate the site on Tuesday. The state of the bodies made it difficult to tell by their clothes if they were soldiers or civilians.

IS has carried out several massacres since it swept into northern and central Iraq in the summer of 2014, often documenting them with photos and videos circulated online.

Iraqi forces launched a massive operation last month to drive the extremists from Mosul and surrounding areas.

Iraqi Kurdish fighters exchanged heavy fire with militants earlier in the day as they advanced from two directions into a town held by the IS east of Mosul.

A member of Iraq's elite counterterrorism forces holds his weapon as forces advance toward Islamic State positions in the village of Tob Zawa, about 9 kilometers (5½ miles) from Mosul, Iraq, Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
A member of Iraq's elite counterterrorism forces holds his weapon as forces advance toward Islamic State positions in the village of Tob Zawa, about 9 kilometers (5½ miles) from Mosul, Iraq, Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
A man holds a child while Civilians leave their houses, as Iraq's elite counterterrorism forces fight against Islamic State militants, in the village of Tob Zawa, about 9 kilometers (5.6 miles) from Mosul, Iraq, Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
Iraq's elite counterterrorism forces advance toward Islamic State positions in the village of Tob Zawa, about 9 kilometers (5½ miles) from Mosul, Iraq, Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
Iraq's elite counterterrorism forces advance toward Islamic State positions in the village of Tob Zawa, about 9 kilometers (5½ miles) from Mosul, Iraq, Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016.(AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
Iraq's elite counterterrorism forces advance toward Islamic State positions in the village of Tob Zawa, about 9 kilometers (5½ miles) from Mosul, Iraq, Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
Iraq's elite counterterrorism forces advance toward Islamic State positions in the village of Tob Zawa, about 9 kilometers (5½ miles) from Mosul, Iraq, Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016.(AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
A newly displaced woman runs after she jumped over a back wall and rushed to grab humanitarian packages, as smoke rises from a burning oil refinery at a processing centre in Qayyara, south of Mosul, Iraq October 25, 2016. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
Iraq's elite counterterrorism forces collect villagers for preliminary investigation before taking them to displaced people camps in the village of Tob Zawa, about 9 kilometers (5½ miles) from Mosul, Iraq, Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
A member of Iraq's elite counterterrorism forces in a military convoy flashes a victory sign as forces advance toward Islamic State positions in the village of Tob Zawa, about 9 kilometers (5½ miles) from Mosul, Iraq, Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
Civilians leave their houses, as Iraq's elite counterterrorism forces fight against Islamic State militants, in the village of Tob Zawa, about 9 kilometers (5.6 miles) from Mosul, Iraq, Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

The offensive to reclaim the town of Bashiqa is part of the broader push to drive IS out of Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city and the militants' last major urban stronghold in the country.

Combat began at dawn with a Kurdish barrage of heavy artillery, Katyusha rockets and mortar rounds striking IS positions, providing cover for the advance of armoured vehicles.

Smoke rose from the town throughout the day, with large explosions sending dark clouds into the sky.

"We have the coordinates of their bases and tunnels, and we are targeting them from here in order to weaken them so that our forces can reach their targets more easily," said Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga commander Brigadier General Iskander Khalil Gardi.

Bashiqa, which is believed to be largely deserted except for dozens of IS fighters, is located about 8 miles north-east of the edge of Mosul and about 13 miles from the city centre.

Iraqi government and Kurdish forces, backed by a US-led coalition and joined by government-sanctioned militias, are fighting to drive IS out of those surrounding areas and open additional fronts to attack Mosul itself.

Bashiqa has been surrounded by Kurdish forces, known as peshmerga, for weeks but Monday's push appears to be the most serious yet to drive IS from the town.

Kurdish forces launched mortar rounds and fired heavy artillery into the town on Sunday in advance of the offensive. More artillery and air strikes hit the town on Monday as the Kurdish forces' advance got under way.

Iraqi special forces entered Mosul last week and have made some progress in gaining a foothold on the city's eastern edges. But progress inside the city has been slowed as troops push into more densely populated areas.

The troops are suffering casualties as the militants have bogged them down with suicide car bombs, booby traps and close-quarters fighting along narrow streets. IS still holds territory to the north, south and west of Mosul.

As Iraqi forces struggle to solidify gains in neighbourhoods in eastern Mosul, more and more civilians are fleeing the city, according to special forces Lieutenant Colonel Hussein Aziz.

"Daesh is trying to draw a line," he said of the heavy fighting in Mosul's easternmost neighbourhoods, referring to IS under its Arabic acronym. "They have a lot of fighters there and they forced families to stay."

Civilians fleeing Mosul are screened at a small checkpoint on the edge of Gogjali, Mosul's easternmost neighbourhood, to catch any IS fighters who may be hiding among them. Since Iraqi forces first pushed into the eastern edge of the city last Tuesday, dozens of people have been arrested.

At the checkpoint, men were waiting for their names to be screened by a pair of informants from the area and multiple Iraqi government databases. Women and children waited further back from the road near an abandoned building.

Gayda, a 42-year-old woman from Mosul, said she fled the Samah neighbourhood in the city's east just hours earlier, after a car bomb exploded next to her home.

When they reached the checkpoint, her husband and son were separated from her and her daughter, and held for questioning a few yards away.

"How can he be from Daesh, he's so young," she said of the 18-year old son. "We are good people, we don't have any enemies."

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