Hatra (Iraq) (AFP) - Iraqi forces on Thursday retook the town of Hatra, southwest of Mosul, on the third day of an operation that saw them wrest back a nearby UNESCO-listed ancient city, a statement said.
Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) paramilitary forces said they had flushed the Islamic State group out of Hatra, which lies 120 kilometres (80 miles) from Mosul.
The top army commander coordinating the six-month-old offensive to retake the Mosul area from the jihadists, Staff Lieutenant General Abdulamir Yarallah, said the "Hashed al-Shaabi forces fully liberated Hatra town in record time."
He was quoted in a statement from the Joint Operations Command as saying that the Iraqi flag was raised above key buildings in the town following a battle during which "heavy losses" were inflicted on the jihadists.
The Hashed forces, which are dominated by Iran-backed militia groups, had retaken the nearby archaeological site of Hatra on Wednesday.
The ancient city is one of the heritage jewels of Iraq and was damaged by IS after they took over large parts of the country three years ago, although the extent of the destruction remains unclear.
The Hashed al-Shaabi issued its own statement and said its forces had begun clearing the western edge of the town of bombs and booby-traps planted by IS.
It said a total of 5,500 civilians and 16,000 sheep had been evacuated from the area, a remote region where herding is the main source of livelihood, over the past three days.
- Growing displacement -
Besides the huge heritage value of ancient Hatra, the nearby city is of particular strategic significance because it commands access to roads linking the provinces of Nineveh, Salaheddin and Anbar.
Simultaneously to the huge offensive on Mosul, which was launched on October 17 last year, Iraqi forces are also battling IS jihadists in the last pockets they hold in Anbar and Salaheddin.
The capture of Hatra and other desert outposts further disrupts the group's ability to resupply its various fronts with fighters and weapons.
While elite fighters from the Counter-Terrorism Service as well as other federal forces have focused their efforts on Mosul itself, the Hashed al-Shaabi has been pressing an offensive southwest of the city.
Their main target is the town of Tal Afar, which lies west of Mosul on the road to the Syrian border.
The Hashed al-Shaabi is an umbrella group which is nominally under the command of the prime minister and also includes Sunni and Christian fighters in addition to the powerful Tehran-backed Shiite militias.
The immigration ministry said on Thursday that more than 400,000 people had been displaced from west Mosul alone since a push to retake it was launched in mid-February.
According to the United Nations, a total of more than half a million civilians have been forced to flee their homes since the offensive on the country's second city was launched more than six months ago.
Iraqi forces have made steady progress in west Mosul but, even with only a few hundred fighters left, the jihadists are expected to make a bloody last stand in the narrow streets of the Old City.
An estimated 400,000 civilians remain trapped in the Old City, making it difficult for Iraqi or US-led coalition aircraft to provide ground troops with air support.