Mosul (Iraq) (AFP) - The bullets of jihadists rain down outside the Mosul kindergarten, where dozens of terrified Iraqi civilians are sheltering from fighting in their northern city.
Confused, scared and exhausted, the civilians -- mostly women, including one in a wheelchair -- huddle in the pre-school after Iraqi forces brought them in for protection.
The sounds of sniper fire, air strikes, and shelling echo all around them, as Iraqi forces fight to dislodge Islamic State group fighters from a nearby building.
Iraqi forces are fighting to retake Mosul from IS, after the jihadist group overran the city in 2014, imposing its brutal rule on its inhabitants.
Naja Abdallah, 70, says she didn't dare leave her house until Iraqi forces arrived in her district of west Mosul, and even then fled with family members under heavy fire.
"We had no more electricity, no water, no medicine -- nothing but God's mercy," she says, as sniper and artillery fire continue unabated in the Al-Shifaa district outside.
Iraqi forces have managed to retake most of Mosul since launching the battle for IS's last major Iraqi stronghold seven months ago, but the advance has slowed in the last districts under jihadist control.
IS's grip on Mosul has been reduced to the Old City and several nearby areas, but the jihadists are putting up significant resistance and up to 200,000 civilians may be caught in the fighting.
Iraqi fighters inside the pre-school have led women to one room, while they check the identities of the men -- young and old -- somewhere else.
The anti-IS forces thoroughly screen fleeing civilians in a bid to make sure no jihadists escape among them.
- 'We won't let IS sleep' -
Omran, a 24-year-old who has grown his beard long like all men under IS rule, is one of those who is separated from his family for vetting.
"We've lived through tough, terrifying days. We've really been through a lot," he says, just before he is whisked away.
The fighting intensified around his home in recent days, he says, and his family escaped to their neighbour's house after their own was hit in the fighting.
"I hope to God it all gets better," Omran says.
Women quietly break down into tears after the men are taken away, as an Iraqi commander shouts coordinates over the radio for warplanes and artillery gunmen to target the jihadists.
Sniper fire intensifies around the building, where civilians are holed up with journalists and members of the interior ministry's elite Rapid Response force fighting IS.
Sniper fire hits and gravely wounds a reporter for a local television station, and Iraqi forces intervene to evacuate him to a medical point.
"The sniper will either be killed or flee," says Rapid Response officer Hussein Ali.
The jihadists are putting up a fight but it's a weak one, he says, an assault rifle in his hands and another slung over his back.
"They have nothing left but snipers and the mines they have been planting."
"We won't let the Dawaesh sleep," he adds, using an Arabic name for IS members.
When the gunfire subsides after about three hours, the Iraqi forces hold up a curtain across the road to block off the view of any jihadist snipers and gradually lead the civilians out of the pre-school to a nearby building.
Iraqi fighters accompany them from building to building all the way to the city's medical school, where the soldiers rest for a few minutes before returning to the frontline.