Kurdish forces in Iraq say they have captured several villages near Mosul from the self-styled Islamic State (IS) group, the last major city the militants hold in the country.
The offensive began at dawn on Sunday, backed by air strikes from the US-led coalition battling IS. Kurdish and Iraqi government forces have been encircling Mosul ahead of an offensive to take the city itself. Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, has been under IS control since June 2014.
The militants reportedly responded to the air strikes by trying to ram explosive-packed vehicles into Kurdish lines.
A Kurdish commander said that more than 5,000 troops were involved in the latest operation. Clashes are said to be ongoing. It comes as the Iraqi government is trying to advance from the south. No date has been given for when the operation to retake Mosul will begin.
The northern Iraqi city was from where IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate – a state governed in accordance with Islamic law. The loss of Mosul would mark the effective defeat of IS in Iraq, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi says.
The UN has warned that the final battle for Mosul could spark “the biggest, most sensitive humanitarian crisis in the world”.