NEAR BASHIQA, Iraq (AP) — Iraqi Kurdish fighters exchanged heavy fire with militants early on Monday as they advanced from two directions into a town held by the Islamic State group east of the city of Mosul.
The offensive to reclaim the town of Bashiqa is part of the broader push to drive IS out of Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city and the militants' last major urban stronghold in the country.
Combat began at dawn with a Kurdish barrage of heavy artillery, Katyusha rockets and mortar rounds slamming into IS positions, providing cover for the advance of armored columns.
Smoke rose from town throughout the day, with large explosions sending dark clouds into the sky.
"We have the coordinates of their bases and tunnels, and we are targeting them from here in order to weaken them so that our forces can reach their targets more easily," said Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga commander Brig. Gen. Iskander Khalil Gardi.
Bashiqa, which is believed to be largely deserted except for dozens of IS fighters, is located about 13 kilometers (8 miles) northeast of the edge of Mosul and about 20 kilometers (13 miles) from the city center.
Iraqi government and Kurdish forces, backed by a U.S.-led coalition and joined by government-sanctioned militias, are fighting to drive IS out of those surrounding areas and open additional fronts to attack Mosul itself.
Bashiqa has been surrounded by Kurdish forces, known as peshmerga, for weeks but Monday's push appears to be the most serious yet to drive IS from the town.
Kurdish forces launched mortar rounds and fired heavy artillery into the town on Sunday in advance of the offensive. More artillery and air strikes hit the town early Monday as the Kurdish forces' advance got underway.
On Mosul's southern front, Iraqi soldiers were advancing into Hamam al-Alil, some 12 miles (20 kilometers) from the city center. Private broadcaster Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen showed images of soldiers hoisting the Iraqi flag on a rooftop in the town.
Army spokesman Brig. Firas Bashar said the city had been retaken, although fighting still continued and other reports said that IS fighters remained in several areas.
Iraqi special forces entered Mosul last week and have made some progress in gaining a foothold on the city's eastern edges. But progress inside the city has been slowed as troops push into more densely populated areas.
The troops are suffering casualties as the militants have bogged them down with suicide car bombs, booby traps and close-quarters fighting along narrow streets. IS still holds territory to the north, south and west of Mosul.
As Iraqi forces struggle to solidify gains in neighborhoods in eastern Mosul, more and more civilians are fleeing the city, according to special forces Lt. Col. Hussein Aziz.
"Daesh is trying to draw a line," Aziz said of the heavy fighting in Mosul's easternmost neighborhoods, referring to IS by its Arabic acronym. "They have a lot of fighters there and they forced families to stay."
Aziz mans a small checkpoint on the edge of Gogjali, Mosul's easternmost neighborhood, where civilians fleeing Mosul are screened to catch any IS fighters who may be hiding among them. Since Iraqi forces first pushed into the eastern edge of the city last Tuesday, Aziz's team has arrested dozens of people.
At the checkpoint, men were waiting for their names to be screened by a pair of informants from the area and multiple Iraqi government databases. Women and children waited further back from the road in the shade of an abandoned building.
Gayda, a 42-year-old woman from Mosul, said she fled the Samah neighborhood in the city's east just hours earlier, after a car bomb exploded next to her home. She only gave her first name, fearing for her safety and that of family members still under IS rule in other parts of Mosul.
When they reached the checkpoint, her husband and son were separated from her and her daughter, and held for questioning a few meters (yards) away.
"How can he be from Daesh, he's so young," she said of the 18-year old son. "We are good people, we don't have any enemies."
Concerns over civilians do not play a role in operations in Bashiqa, the peshmerga's Gardi said.
"Regarding the challenges, in any area that has no civilians, there won't be any problem. And currently, according to our intelligence, there are no civilians left in Bashiqa," he said.
Meanwhile, the U.N. health agency said it has set up 82 "rapid response teams" to manage risks of epidemics, chemical exposure and other health worries among people fleeing Mosul.
The World Health Organization says that water and sanitation in camps for displaced people could "face disruptions" as the numbers of those who fled Mosul is growing, raising the risk of food- and water-borne diseases such as cholera. It also says that additional concerns include children who reportedly haven't been immunized since the radical Islamic State group seized control of Iraq's second largest city in June 2014.