Sunday 25 February 2018

Foreign Isil fighters now trapped as forces close in

Members of the Iraqi Army are photographed with an Islamic State flag, claimed after fighting with Islamic State militants in western Mosul, Iraq yesterday. Photo: Reuters/Alaa Al-Marjani
Members of the Iraqi Army are photographed with an Islamic State flag, claimed after fighting with Islamic State militants in western Mosul, Iraq yesterday. Photo: Reuters/Alaa Al-Marjani

Ben Farmer and Josie Ensor in Mosul

Foreign fighters, including hundreds of Britons, are effectively trapped in the shrinking remnants of Isil's so-called caliphate, Western military commanders believe.

Iraqi, Kurdish and Syrian forces have largely sealed the militants' former strongholds of Raqqa and Mosul, while Turkey has tried to seal its border to jihadists trying to escape.

Maj Gen Rupert Jones, the British deputy commander of the international coalition fighting against Isil, said those left would be "cleared" by local forces.

British intelligence officials have estimated that about 300 Britons, including women and children, remain in the extremists' territory after they travelled to join the group, which is also known as Daesh.

Local forces have been encouraged to cut off Raqqa and Mosul before they try to liberate them, to prevent hundreds of hardened jihadists fleeing to Europe when Isil collapses.

Maj Gen Jones said that a "noose" was now tightening around Raqqa, while Iraqi forces are fighting through a maze of alleyways to clear Mosul's old city.

He said: "There was a time when significant numbers of foreign fighters were flowing into Iraq and Syria. That number has now slowed to a trickle.

"It is increasingly difficult for foreign fighters to go back the other way. Those borders are tight.

"We are increasingly confident that those foreign fighters are trapped within their areas and will be cleared by our partners."

Maj Gen Jones said the fighting in Mosul was "tough".

He added: "The Iraqis are fighting through a network of tight alleyways. The remaining Isil fighters have nothing to lose and are fighting with characteristic brutality."

'Sleeper cells' left behind after the militants were driven back through Mosul's streets on Sunday attacked Iraqi forces and burned houses.

The surprise assault took place as Iraqi forces were searching the al-Tanak and Yarmouk neighbourhoods in the western side of the city, which had been retaken several weeks ago.

The jihadists set fire to a number of houses and cars in the area before launching suicide attacks. Footage showed families, fearing a return to Isil rule, leaving by car and on foot against a backdrop of rising black smoke.

General Abdulwahab al-Saadi, a commander in Iraq's Counter-Terrorism Service, which sent forces to fight the Isil gunmen, said the attackers had infiltrated the area by blending in with returning displaced civilians.

More than 15 Isil fighters were killed, as well as several civilians.

Some 800,000 people have been displaced from the Mosul area since October last year and the security forces are struggling to carry out effective screening.

But an Iraqi general said the battle for Mosul would be over within days. "Only a small part remains in the city, specifically the Old City," said Lieutenant General Abdul Ghani al-Assadi, commander of the Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) elite units in Mosul. "From a military perspective, Daesh is finished," Mr Assadi said. "It lost its fighting spirit and its balance, we are making calls to them to surrender or die." Mr Assadi said the city would fall "in very few days, God willing".

The area now under Isil control in Mosul, is less than 2sqkm, the Iraqi military said.

The militants last week destroyed the historic Grand al-Nuri Mosque and its leaning minaret from which their leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate spanning parts of Iraq and Syria three years ago. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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