Iraqi forces battled jihadists deep inside Mosul Wednesday, edging closer to the River Tigris that divides the city as they sought a breakthrough in the seven-week-old offensive.
The fighting to retake the Islamic State (IS) group's last major stronghold in Iraq has prompted a steady trickle of people to leave their homes, many taking refuge in camps where nighttime temperatures have dipped below freezing.
The 9th Armoured Division reached Al-Salam hospital in a push on Tuesday, the farthest the army has penetrated into east Mosul since the start of a broad offensive launched on October 17.
But it quickly found itself surrounded by jihadists and needed support from the elite Counter-Terrorism Service to pull back, commanders said.
"Our forces dealt with the situation at Al-Salam hospital" in southeastern Mosul, Maan Saadi, a CTS commander, told AFP.
"Our mission was to offer support to the 9th Division forces surrounded in the hospital, our units accomplished this mission and opened a passage," he said.
Saadi said the army was now occupying a position nearly one kilometre (less than a mile) from the hospital, which a 9th Division commander said had been used by IS as a command centre.
The five-storey building towers above the neighbourhood and the jihadists had been using the upper floors and roof as sniper positions for some time, Mosul residents said.
The IS-affiliated Amaq news agency said the jihadists had carried out five suicide car bomb attacks in the area during the past 24 hours.
|[Click to enlarge]|
It said the army was holed up in the hospital compound and had suffered heavy losses. Iraqi officers did not provide any casualty toll for the latest fighting.
CTS has spearheaded the drive into Mosul in the past month, retaking several neighbourhoods in the east of the city.
Saadi also said his forces had retaken two neighbourhoods in eastern Mosul and were aiming to flush out jihadists from two more in the coming days.
"We are now in Al-Taamim which is three kilometres (two miles) from the river, including an open area of about one kilometre where there are no buildings," he said.
Officers and analysts had expected the eastern side of Mosul to offer less resistance but the going has been tough and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's promise to retake Mosul by year's end has looked increasingly in question.
One of the main factors hampering Iraqi forces in Mosul is the continued presence of hundreds of thousands of civilians, who either want to stay in their homes or are prevented from leaving by IS.
The United Nations on Wednesday put the overall number of people displaced by the offensive at more than 82,000.
That is still less than half the figure the UN expected before the operation was launched.
It its latest situation report, the UN spoke of spiralling civilian casualties as Iraqi forces went house to house in east Mosul, attempting to battle jihadists and protect civilians at the same time.
"Partners are rushing to bring trauma care closer to the front lines to give injured civilians the best chance of survival," the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said.
It said work was also under way to repair water and electricity infrastructure in east Mosul, where it described the current water shortage as "critical".
Hundreds of thousands of people in Mosul have gone days without potable water and have had to boil water from boreholes to survive.
The conditions for those massing in the camps on the city's outskirts were hardly better, with the onset of winter bringing freezing temperatures at night.