Iraqi forces have begun their assault on Mosul’s Old City as they press their battle to retake the the rest of the northern city from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group.
State TV has aired live footage showing thick black smoke rising from the Old City and gunfire echoing from inside.
It said leaflets were distributed urging civilians to leave through five “safe corridors”.
“The army, counterterrorism forces and federal police launched an attack on the Old City,” Staff Lieutenant-General Abdulamir Yarallah, who commands operations in Iraq’s Ninevah province, said in a statement.
Iraq: Thousands of children at risk in Mosul conflict
Staff Lieutenant-General Abdulwahab al-Saadi, a senior commander with the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service, told state TV he expects ISIL to put up a “vicious and tough fight”.
Iraqi forces backed by the air strikes of the US-led coalition are pressing a months-long offensive to retake the Old City on the west side of the city from ISIL, also known as ISIS.
“The initial air strikes started at around midnight. The security forces started storming parts of the Old City at dawn,” an officer with Nineveh operations command said.
Taking back the Old City, a densely populated warren of narrow alleyways on the western side of Mosul, is crucial to recapturing the whole of the former ISIL bastion.
The UN says around 150,000 civilians are trapped in the ancient city centre.
Bruno Geddo, the UN refugee agency’s representative in Iraq, said ISIL had been capturing civilians and forcing them into the Old City.
“We know that ISIS moved them with them as they left … locations where the fighting was going on,” Geddo said in Geneva, using a different acronym for ISIL.
“These civilians are basically held as human shields in the Old City.”
With virtually no food, water or electricity left in the area, the civilians are “living in an increasingly worsening situation of penury and panic”, he said.
“They are surrounded by fighting on every side.”
Earlier this month, the global body warned of a “significant escalation” of civilian deaths in the city.
Since the battle to retake Mosul began nine months ago, an estimated 862,000 people have been displaced from the city, although 195,000 have since returned, mainly to the liberated east of the city.
Iraqi forces launched the battle for Mosul in October, retaking the eastern part of the city in January and starting the operation for its western part the next month.
The Old City is home to the centuries-old al-Nuri Mosque, where ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi delivered a Friday sermon in 2014 as his group declared an Islamic caliphate in the areas it controlled in Syria and Iraq.
ISIL has lost much of that territory over the last three years, and Mosul is their last urban bastion in Iraq.
Source: News agencies