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Iraqi forces clash with IS group in Kirkuk as troops advance on Mosul

Bulent Kilic, AFP | Coalition forces are attempting to break through the IS group's defensive lines outside the city of Mosul

Suspected Islamic State (IS) group militants attacked several buildings and a power station in the northern Iraqi oil city of Kirkuk in the early hours of Friday, killing dozens, including an Iraqi journalist, officials said.

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"There are sporadic clashes between the security forces and Daesh," a police colonel told AFP in Kirkuk, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State jihadist group.

Officials said dozens of people were killed in Friday’s clashes in the Kurdish-controlled city, including at least six police officers, an Iraqi journalist and 15 women.

Earlier on Friday, gunmen wearing suicide vests attacked government targets in Kirkuk and the surrounding area.

In one attack, three bombers infiltrated a power plant being built by an Iranian company near Dibis, a town about 40 kilometres (25 miles) northwest of Kirkuk, the mayor said.

"Three suicide bombers attacked the power plant at around 6am (3am GMT), killing 12 Iraqi administrators and engineers and four Iranian technicians," Dibis mayor Abdullah Nureddin al-Salehi told AFP.

Iraqi forces advance on Mosul

The attacks in Kirkuk come in the wake of a new front in the offensive to wrest back control of Mosul, the Islamic State (IS) group's last major bastion in Iraq, which lies 170 kilometres (105 miles) northwest of Kirkuk.

>>Watch more on FRANCE 24.com: 'Coalition forces open two new fronts in battle for Mosul'

On Thursday, elite Iraqi forces retook a town on the eastern edge of Mosul, occupied by the IS group since 2014, while Kurdish peshmerga fighters opened a new front in the offensive against the jihadists.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi told an international meeting in Paris that the four-day-old offensive was "advancing faster than expected".

France and Iraq were co-chairing the meeting on the future of Mosul, which observers have warned could raise even greater humanitarian and interethnic challenges than the massive military operation to retake it.

In some areas, the Iraqi advance was met by a trickle of civilians fleeing both the fighting and the jihadists who ruled them for two years, but the feared mass exodus from Mosul had yet to materialise.

The counter-terrorism service (CTS), Iraq's best-trained and most battle-seasoned force, retook full control of Bartella, a town that lies less than 15 kilometres (nine miles) east of Mosul.

"I announce to the people of Bartella and Mosul we have complete control over Bartella," CTS commander Taleb Sheghati al-Kenani told reporters from the town.

"Its residents, its churches and its entire infrastructure are now under the control of CTS," he said of the small Christian town that IS seized when it swept across the Nineveh plain in August 2014.

Some 120,000 Iraqi Christians were forced to flee their homes at the time.

FRANCE 24’s James André, who is with Iraqi forces that took Bartella, said there had been “very harsh fighting to take the town” which is just seven kilometres from Mosul itself.

The Iraqi commander, André said, was “getting intelligence from residents inside Mosul, which is extremely dangerous for them as one family caught with a satellite phone had been executed by the jihadists”.

'Battle rages in Qaraqosh'

IS group ‘drones’

Further north Kurdish peshmerga forces opened a new front with a multiple-pronged assault on the town of Ba'ashiqa.

"The objectives are to clear a number of nearby villages and secure control of strategic areas to further restrict ISIL's movements," the peshmerga command said, using an alternative acronym for the IS group.

At dawn, bulldozers flattened a path for forces in armoured vehicles to carve their way towards Ba'ashiqa.

As tanks and personnel carriers prepared to advance, a shadow glided above them and one peshmerga shouted "drone!"

Fighters opened fire at it with every weapon available, causing an almighty din and lighting up the dim morning sky, until the drone fell to the ground and the troops resumed their advance.

An AFP reporter in the village of Nawaran near Ba'ashiqa saw the downed drone, a Raven RQ-11B model similar to a booby-trapped one that killed two Kurdish fighters and wounded two French soldiers a week ago.

Iraqi federal forces and the peshmerga have not divulged casualty figures in this offensive.

On Thursday, the IS group released a short video showing the bodies of what it said were two peshmerga, hung by their feet from a bridge in central Mosul.

A US service member was killed Thursday when an improvised explosive device went off, the coalition said.

A US defence official said the incident occurred north of Mosul but did not specify whether the dead service member was one of the more than 100 US troops advising Iraqi forces as they push toward Mosul.

Trickle of civilians

To the south, Iraqi forces were making steady gains, working their way up the Tigris Valley and meeting small numbers of fleeing civilians heading the other way.

Dozens of men, women and children who escaped from the village of Mdaraj, south of Mosul, some on foot and others in vehicles, were waiting as police searched their belongings.

"We snuck out," said a man who gave his name as Abu Hussein.

The huge plumes of black smoke from fires lit by the IS group to provide cover from air strikes had helped them slip out unnoticed, he said.

The UN fears up to a million people still trapped inside Mosul could be forced to flee by the fighting, sparking a humanitarian emergency.

But Iraqi forces are still some distance from the city limits and no major outflows of civilians have been reported yet.

Some Mosul residents who fled before the start of the offensive have crossed into neighbouring Syria and are now sheltered at a camp in Al-Hawl.

A Kurdish official at the camp said 500 people had entered the camp in the past two weeks and 2,000-3,000 Iraqis were waiting at the border.

Bulldozers were busy expanding the camp, which staff there feared could be submerged by as many as 30,000 displaced Iraqis when the Mosul battle intensifies.

Post-IS group Mosul

The Iraqi prime minister told the Paris meeting on Mosul that the operation to retake it was making progress.

"We are advancing faster than we had expected and planned," he said by video link.

French President François Hollande told the meeting that jihadists were already leaving for Raqqa, their stronghold in neighbouring Syria.

"We cannot allow those who were in Mosul to evaporate," Hollande said.

Mosul's capture by IS group fighters touched off an offensive that saw the jihadists conquer about a third of the country and declare a "caliphate" straddling Iraq and Syria.

The task of reconciling all the components of the area's complex religious and ethnic mosaic is daunting.

"Given the sheer size of Mosul – and its experience of savage rule at the hands of the Islamic State – revenge killing will likely be an issue in the days and months ahead," according to the Soufan consultancy.

"A massive effort will be required to begin to heal what is a truly fractured city and society," it said.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)

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