Photos: Iraqi forces enter Hawija, Isis stronghold where 78,000 people may be trapped

Up to 78,000 people may be trapped in the town of Hawija, one of just two pockets of territory in Iraq still under Isis control.

Iraqi forces and Shia paramilitaries have entered the town of Hawija, one of two pockets of territory still under control of Islamic State (Isis/Daesh) in Iraq. Federal police commander Raed Shakir Jawdat said in a statement that the latest "phase of the operation to liberate Hawija" had begun with artillery and missile fire on jihadist positions. He said his units had entered the city from the northwest.

Iraqi forces advance towards Hawija under clouds of black smoke from oil wells set alight by IsisReuters
Members of the Shia Popular Mobilisation Forces run and take cover from a bomb attack outside HawijaReuters

The offensive to dislodge Isis from Hawija, which lies west of the city of Kirkuk and north of Baghdad, began on 21 September. The UN has warned that up to 78,000 civilians could be trapped in the Isis-ruled town. UN humanitarian spokesman Jens Laerke said the number of people who have fled the fighting has increased from 7,000 people during the first week of the operation to some 12,500 people now. But up to 78,000 remain trapped, he said.

Security officials say the militants are preventing some residents from leaving, while others may be afraid of escaping toward government forces because of the likelihood of Isis snipers, bombs and booby traps. "We remain concerned for the lives and well-being of these vulnerable civilians and remind those doing the fighting that civilians must be protected at all times and allowed to safely leave Hawija," Laerke said.

Children carry white flags as a family flees Hawija on a donkey cart as Iraqi forces advance to recapture the town from IsisAhmad al-Rubaye/AFP
Iraqi forces and fighters from the Popular Mobilisation units throw food to children from a neighbouring village as they advance towards HawijaAhmad al-Rubaye/AFP
A man from a neighbouring village waves a white flag as Iraqi forces and fighters from the Popular Mobilisation units advance towards HawijaAhmad al-Rubaye/AFP
Kurdish Peshmerga forces help people who fled from their homes in Hawija before they are transported to camps for displaced peopleAko Rasheed/Reuters
Displaced Iraqis, who fled the city of Hawija due to the military operation to capture the city from Islamic State, rest following their arrival in Makhmur, about 280 kilometres (175 miles) north of Baghdad, before being transported to a refugee campSafin Hamed/AFP

The final push into the town comes two days after they recaptured the Rashad air base, located 30km (20 miles) to the south of the town, which was used by the militants as a training camp and logistics site.

Army Lieutenant Colonel Salih Yaseen said the air base would help maintain security in northern Iraq as it would allow helicopters to transport soldiers and arms to the area. "The air base will help to put an end to the terrorists' pockets hiding in mountainous areas near Kirkuk and remove any possible threat to the energy facilities and oilfields," he said.

Plans to retake the town of Hawija have been complicated by political wrangling among Iraq's disparate security forces. The area is disputed between Baghdad and the northern Kurdish autonomous region, where a referendum on independence was recently held.

Isis militants set fire to three oil wells near Hawija to slow the advance of US-backed Iraqi forces and Shia militia groups. The Allas oilfield, 35km (20 miles) south of Hawija, was one of the main sources of revenue for Islamic State. "Terrorists are trying to use the rising smoke to avert air strikes while retreating," said army Colonel Mohammed al-Jabouri.

An Isis sign is seen on the road at a military airport south of HawijaReuters
Isis graffiti is seen on a structure at a military airport south of Hawija captured by Iraqi army members and Popular Mobilisation ForcesReuters
Iraqi forces and the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation units) advance towards the Islamic State stronghold of HawijaAhmad al-Rubaye/AFP
Shia Popular Mobilisation Forces carry their weapons as they assemble at a military airport south of HawijaReuters
A pro-government fighter flashes the victory sign during the advance on the Islamic State stronghold of HawijaAhmad al-Rubaye/AFP
A member of the Shia Popular Mobilisation Forces poses for a photo in front of smoke from burning oil wellsReuters
Iraqi forces and the Popular Mobilisation units assemble in a mountainous area on the outskirts of HawijaAhmad al-Rubaye/AFP
Smoke rises from clashes outside Hawija as Popular Mobilisation Forces and Iraqi army members advance on the townReuters
Iraqi fighters from the Popular Mobilisation units commemorate the Shia Muslim holiday of Ashura as they advance towards Hawija on 1 October 2017Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP

The other area of the country still under the control of the militant group is a stretch of land along the Syrian border, in western Iraq.

Islamic State's self-declared "caliphate" effectively collapsed in July, when US-backed Iraqi forces captured Mosul, the group's de facto capital in Iraq, after a gruelling nine-month battle. Syrian Democratic Forces are on the verge of recapturing the city of Raqqa, the militants' de facto capital in Syria.

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