BAGHDAD: Jihadist leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi called on his fighters not to retreat but to resist the Iraqi forces who are poised to enter the city of Mosul.
“Do not retreat,” said a voice presented as belonging to the leader of the Islamic State group in an audio message released early Thursday by the IS-affiliated Al-Furqan media.
“Holding your ground with honor is a thousand times easier than retreating in shame,” he said in the message, his first in more than a year amid rumors of his health and uncertain whereabouts.
“To all the people of Nineveh, especially the fighters, beware of any weakness in facing your enemy,” Baghdadi said, referring to the northern Iraqi province of which Mosul is the capital and where he had declared the “caliphate” two years ago.
Meanwhile, residents in Mosul said on Wednesday that jihadists are forcibly gathering people in and around Mosul for possible use as human shields, confirming UN fears. Abu Mohammed, a west Mosul resident, said the jihadists had “gathered a large number of people from areas south of Mosul and forced them to move to the city.”
Another resident of east Mosul said the jihadists had “demanded that people, especially young people, gather in the area’s schools, and that they bring their identity papers with them”.
But most people had “refused to obey those orders,” Abu Yunes told AFP, adding they were fearful that they would be used as human shields.
In Geneva on Tuesday, the United Nations said it had received reports of IS fighters forcing thousands of civilians into Mosul, possibly to be used as “human shields”.
At the UN headquarters in New York, the Security Council meeting behind closed doors on Wednesday to discuss the military operation in Mosul for the first time, heard reports from UN human rights and humanitarian aid officials and condemned the use of human shields, saying all sides must avoid harming civilians in the battle.
Reports of IS group fighters taking civilians from their homes and rounding them up to serve as human shields alarmed council members, said Senegal’s Deputy Ambassador Georgui Ciss, whose country holds the council presidency.
They “condemn the use of human shields and call on all parties to take all feasible precautions with a view to avoiding harm to civilians and civilian objects in accordance with international humanitarian law,” he said.
More than one million civilians in Mosul are in grave danger and aid workers are “bracing for the worst”, a relief group said Wednesday.
The Norwegian Refugee Council said a long-feared humanitarian crisis was closer than ever.
“We are now bracing ourselves for the worst. The lives of 1.2 million civilians are in grave danger, and the future of all of Iraq is now in the balance,” said its Iraq director Wolfgang Gressmann.
More than 20,000 people have already fled to government-held areas since the offensive was launched on October 17, says the International Organization for Migration.
The US-led coalition estimates there are 3,000 to 5,000 jihadist fighters inside Mosul but the final outcome of the battle appears to be in little doubt.
Tens of thousands of Iraqi forces, backed by the US-led coalition and its warplanes, launched a massive offensive on Mosul on October 17.
Just over two weeks into the offensive to retake the city from the Islamic State group, the country’s forces have fought their way to the eastern outskirts of Mosul.
But there were no signs yet of a major push inside Mosul itself and bad weather appeared to have limited operations, while forces on other fronts were still some distance away.
Gunfire echoed across the village of Gogjali on Mosul’s eastern edge as elite Iraqi forces worked to clear the area.
Iraqi federal forces and Kurdish peshmerga fighters are advancing on Mosul from the east, north and south. Soldiers pushing from the north have moved within around two kilometers of Mosul, military officials say, while forces approaching from the south are still some distance away.
Paramilitary forces from the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation), an umbrella organization dominated by Iran-backed Shiite militia, also launched an assault at the weekend to cut off the jihadists’ escape route to Syria.