South of Mosul (Iraq) (AFP) - Hundreds of civilians fled through the desert Tuesday to escape fighting and privation in Mosul, joining thousands of others who left their homes amid dire conditions in the city's west.
Iraqi forces launched a major push on February 19 to recapture the west of Mosul from the Islamic State jihadist group, retaking the airport and then advancing north.
Security forces reached the southernmost of Mosul's five damaged or destroyed bridges across the Tigris River on Monday, a step that could allow troops to extend a floating bridge between the city's east and west sides.
But even if Iraqi forces link the recaptured east bank with the west, tough fighting still lies ahead, and civilians will be caught in the middle.
"So far today (Tuesday), we have around 300 displaced people -- men and women and children," Brigadier General Salman Hashem of the Counter-Terrorism Service told AFP.
"There are more coming. They're stopped at a checkpoint when they arrive and separated. The men are searched and then checked against a database," Hashem said.
Twenty-three men were pulled aside for additional investigation after their names were flagged in the database, he said.
Those fleeing the city have faced dire conditions.
"They're coming to us after days without food," Hashem said.
While the men are taken to be checked, the women and children sit on sheets on the dusty ground, and security forces bring them water, food and condensed milk.
Eighteen-year-old Baidaa, wearing a ragged black scarf and holding her young daughter, said she and her family had fled early on Tuesday.
"We left at five o'clock this morning. We started running and then we walked the rest of the way. We had to run because we were afraid of fire from (IS)," Baidaa said.
"They trapped us and they didn't want us to leave," she said of the jihadists.
Her two children did not "understand what's happening, they just followed us. They were so afraid of the firing from the fighting."
- Hundreds of thousands trapped -
According to the ministry of displacement and migration, at least 16,000 people have been displaced since the battle for west Mosul began -- a small fraction of the area's total population.
"There is serious concern for the 750,000 trapped in the densely populated western sector, with conditions worsening daily, according to reports and testimonies from those who have managed to escape," Hala Jaber of the International Organization for Migration said in a statement.
Those still in Mosul have to face IS's strict rule along with a lack of basic goods and the danger from the fighting.
"Women had to cover up, you couldn't walk in the street without a guardian. The rules were very harsh and food was very expensive -- we could only afford to eat rice and bread," Baidaa said.
Fawzia Mohammed, a mother of 16 who also fled on Tuesday, said she and her family were trapped in their homes with little to eat.
"The last days were terrible. We were trapped inside by the fighting, we had no food," she said.
"The women were forced (by IS) to cover their faces, or stay at home. But that was okay -- the worst was the violence, lashings, executions, cutting people," Mohammed said.
One man who arrived with his wife and elderly mother asked Iraqi forces for medicine, but there was none on hand.
"My mother is old, she has diabetes, we don't have any medicine for her," he said.
IS overran large areas north and west of Baghdad in 2014, but Iraqi forces backed by air strikes and other support from a US-led coalition have since regained much of the territory they lost.
Iraqi forces launched a massive operation to retake Mosul on October 17, recapturing the east bank about three months later and then setting their sights on its smaller but more densely populated west side.