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Iraqi forces advance on IS group stronghold of Fallujah

Ahmad Al-Rubaye, AFP | Iraqi pro-government forces reach al-Sejar village in Iraq's Anbar province, on the boundaries of Fallujah, on May 28, 2016.

Iraqi special forces advanced on Fallujah Monday, marking a new phase in a military operation to retake the western Iraqi city, which has been a bastion of the Islamic State (IS) group since 2004.

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There were conflicting reports as to how far Iraqi forces had pushed into Fallujah, but a local military commander said they had entered the city.

"Iraqi forces entered Fallujah under air cover from the international coalition, the Iraqi air force and army aviation and supported by artillery and tanks," said Lieutenant General Abdelwahab al-Saadi, the commander in charge of the operation.

"Counter-terrorism service (CTS) forces, the Anbar police and the Iraqi army, at around 4am (1am GMT), started moving into Fallujah from three directions," he said.

"There is resistance from Daesh," he added, using an Arabic acronym for the IS group.

CTS spokesman Sabah al-Norman told AFP: "We started early this morning our operations to break into Fallujah."

Reporting for FRANCE 24 from the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, Owen Holdaway said Monday’s push into the heart of Fallujah marked a decisive phase of the military operation to take back the city. “The city has actually been surrounded for some time. The issue with that is that ISIL [another acronym for the IS group] fighters, which estimates range from around 500 to 900 when the operation started, are concentrated now in the centre of the city and they’re also very much merged in with the civilian population. So, moving forward it will be very incremental. But I do think it’s definitely the final few days of IS control over Fallujah.”

The involvement of the elite CTS marks the start of a phase of urban combat in a city where US forces in 2004 fought some of their toughest battles since the Vietnam War.

The week-old operation had previously focused on retaking villages and rural areas around Fallujah, which lies just 50 kilometres west of Baghdad.

Fallujah is one of just two major urban centres in Iraq still held by the IS group. They also hold second city Mosul.

Harrowing accounts of life under IS control

Only a few hundred families managed to slip out of the Fallujah area ahead of the assault on the city, with an estimated 50,000 civilians still trapped inside, sparking fears the jihadists could try to use them as human shields.

Despite plans before the operation for safe corridors, few civilians have managed to flee the Fallujah battle in recent days.

Aid groups have been warning of a dire humanitarian situation inside the city, which has been besieged for months.

“The situation inside Fallujah is getting critical by the day,” said Nasr Muflahi, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Iraq director.

Last week, a group of Fallujah residents who managed to flee recounted grim accounts of life in the IS group-held city.

The IS group “gave us food that only animals would eat", Umm Omar, who was accompanied by more than 10 members of her family, told the AFP.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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