Iraq government forces launched an offensive Sunday to recapture the western part of the city of Mosul, the last stronghold for Islamic State jihadists in the country — but United Nations officials warn that as many as 650,000 civilians could be trapped there and at risk of being used as human shields or caught in the crossfire.
IS have previously threatened to kill any of the estimated 350,000 children still in Mosul if they try to leave the city.
Hundreds of Iraqi military vehicles rolled across the desert towards Mosul on Sunday, showering the city with airstrikes, the BBC reported, in what was the decisive day of a four month operation. The offensive was announced by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Sunday morning.
But the layout of Mosul’s west side could make liberating the city especially challenging, military experts and human rights advocates have said.
“An estimated 350,000 children are trapped in western Mosul, and the impact and other explosive weaponry in those narrow, densely-populated streets is likely to be more deadly and indiscriminate than anything we have seen in the conflict so far,” Maurizio Crivallero, Save the Children’s Iraq Country Director said in a statement. “This is the grim choice for children in western Mosul right now: bombs, crossfire and hunger if they stay; or execution and snipers if they try to run.”
Meanwhile, commanders have noted that military vehicles will be unable to pass through many of the narrow, winding streets, according to Reuters.
Iraq forces recaptured the eastern side of the city last month. Mosul’s two sides are divided by the Tigris River and normally linked by bridges. During Iraq’s assault on IS-posts in the eastern side of the city last month, U.S.-led coalition airstrikes targeted some of the bridges to prevent militants on the west side from sending reinforcements to their eastern counterparts.
After Iraqi forces successfully recaptured the east, IS militants reportedly destroyed remaining bridges in a “desperate act” to delay the government’s advance, according to a U.S-led Coalition spokesperson. The lack of bridges has made Iraq’s plan to liberate Mosul’s western region more challenging.
Mosul fell to Islamic State group in June 2014.