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Rush hour on Mosul's 'displacement highway'
By Jean-Marc Mojon and Ahmad Mousa
Mosul, Iraq (AFP) March 30, 2017

IS fighters in Mosul provoking coalition strikes on civilians: US military
Washington (AFP) March 30, 2017 - Islamic State group fighters battling Iraqi forces in Mosul are holding civilians hostage in buildings and then deliberately attracting strikes by coalition aircraft, a spokesman for the US-led coalition said on Thursday.

His comments come after the senior US leader in Iraq, General Stephen Townsend, acknowledged this week that a coalition strike in the northern city earlier this month "probably" killed dozens of civilians.

"What you see now is not the use civilians as human shields," said Colonel Joe Scrocca, a spokesman for the Baghdad-based coalition. "Now it's something much more sinister."

"ISIS is smuggling civilians so we won't see them and trying to bait the coalition to attack to take advantage of the public outcry and the terror," he added, using an alternate acronym for the IS group.

"For the first time we caught that on a video yesterday," he said. "Armed ISIS fighters forced civilians into a building, killing one who resisted, and then used this building against the CTS (Iraqi counter-terrorist forces)."

US military leaders say the ammunition used in the coalition strike on civilians this month was insufficient to explain the amount of destruction and number of casualties observed.

They suspect the building may have been booby-trapped or that the damaged may have been caused by the detonation of a truck bomb.

The coalition is supporting Iraqi forces battling the jihadists in Mosul, whose numbers are estimated to have fallen to fewer than 1,000, Scrocca said.

The IS group had an estimated 2,000 fighters in west Mosul when the Iraqi push on the northern city began in mid-February. "We believe it's less than half now," he said.

The Iraqi forces number around 100,000 men, he added.

Having pushed the jihadists from the city's eastern section, they are now moving into the old city in western Mosul, where tens of thousands of civilians are believed to be trapped.

At least 14 dead in IS truck bomb at Baghdad checkpoint
Baghdad (AFP) March 30, 2017 - At least 14 people were killed when a suicide bomber detonated an explosives-rigged vehicle at an entrance to Baghdad, in an attack claimed by the Islamic State group, officials said Thursday.

The blast, which hit the checkpoint at the main southern entrance to the city on Wednesday night, also wounded at least 36 people, the officials said.

IS issued a statement claiming the attack, saying it was carried out by a suicide bomber driving a truck "carrying several tonnes of explosive material."

The jihadist group overran large areas north and west of Baghdad in 2014, but Iraqi forces backed by US-led air strikes have since regained much of the territory they lost.

Iraqi security forces are now battling IS in west Mosul, the last city in the country in which the jihadists hold significant ground.

But even the full recapture of Mosul will not do away with the threat of IS bombings that have plagued Iraq for years. The jihadist group still holds territory in the country's west, as well as in Syria.

And even the loss of all that territory would not prevent it from reverting to underground insurgent cells carrying out bombings against civilians and hit-and-run attacks on security forces.

On west Mosul's Baghdad street, thousands of displaced Iraqis flee the fighting with their meagre belongings but similar numbers walk in the other direction, heading straight back into the war-torn city.

The street is currently the main corridor for civilians fleeing the battle between the Islamic State group and the government forces trying to root them out of their last strongholds.

It is also the main entry point for those already returning to the homes they fled in the early stages of the offensive federal forces launched last month on the western side of Mosul.

The contrary flows of trudging civilians cross quietly, each on their half of the road, sometimes parted by a screeching ambulance taking wounded residents or fighters to the nearest hospital.

"They are fleeing areas that have not been liberated yet like Yarmuk, Matahen and Aabar neighbourhoods," said Ghanem Ahmad, a 48-year-old in a grey traditional gown.

"But we the people of Risala feel safe now and are returning to our homes, it's better," he said.

Ghaith Lafi, a 21-year-old student wearing a red hoodie, decided to park his cart stacked with chocolate bars and wafers on Baghdad street a few weeks ago.

"This street is full, as if it was judgement day," he said.

"There are other places like this where displaced people cross but now Baghdad street... is the safest street and the one people use the most to flee," he said.

"I just stand here on 'displacement road' -- some people come to me with nothing so I give them things for free."

Mosul is witnessing one of the biggest battles since IS jihadists proclaimed a so-called caliphate over parts of Iraq and Syria nearly three years ago but it was never emptied of its population like other cities were when government forces moved back in.

- Short-term displacement -

Residents were largely unwilling to leave. Those who eventually had to because the fighting got too intense are trying to return as soon their neighbourhood is retaken, even when the battle still rages a few blocks down.

The corridor is secured by forces from the elite Counter-Terrorism Service and other units but mortar rounds still whizzed over the streams of displaced civilians while gunships unleashed thudding bursts of machinegun fire on nearby jihadist targets.

"Why would we be scared? Thank God, we Iraqis have no fear, never as long as he is present," said Shetat Mohammed, a veiled woman in her late 50s, pointing to the sky as she and her family walked towards the plumes of black smoke rising above Mosul.

There were an estimated one million people in Iraq's second city before security forces began a huge offensive in mid-October.

More than 300,000 were displaced at one point but not all went to camps set up by the United Nations and other aid groups.

Many have simply moved from one neighbourhood to another as the front line itself moved, attempting to remain as close as possible to their abandoned homes.

Faisal Hamid, carrying nothing but two framed training certificates, was among the droves of civilians fleeing the city but hoped to walking homeward on Baghdad street within days.

"I'll be back, God willing, in two or three days. The security forces told us to come back when the area is secured," he said.

Aziz Ali, a 47-year-old with a grey beard, is making the Baghdad street journey for the third time in 10 days already.

He and his children tried to return last week to the Mosul al-Jadida neighbourhood they had fled a few days earlier but found very few other families there and no water to drink.

He decided to leave again and temporarily move to the east bank of Mosul, which is split in two halves by the Tigris river.

"My uncle's house is there... hopefully the children can go to school."

Military mobilises to help cyclone-ravaged Australian region
Ayr, Australia (AFP) March 29, 2017
Towns remained cut off in northern Australia Wednesday after being pummelled by a powerful cyclone that washed battered yachts ashore and ripped roofs off houses, as the military mobilised to help with the clean-up. The category four Cyclone Debbie slammed into the coast of Queensland state between Bowen and Airlie Beach on Tuesday afternoon, packing destructive winds and devastating some of ... read more

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