MOSUL, Iraq, April 10 (Xinhua) -- Iraqi government forces on Monday gained more ground in the western side of Mosul amid heavy clashes against the Islamic State (IS) militants, the Iraqi military said.
The elite forces, known as Counter Terrorism Service (CTS), freed the small neighborhood of Sikak and the remaining part of the adjacent Yarmouk neighborhood in west of Mosul's old city center, after days of heavy clashes with the extremist militants, Lt. Gen. Abdul-Amir Yarallah, from the Joint Operations Command (JOC), said in a statement.
The latest advance is part of slow advance that included the nearby neighborhoods of Tanak, Aabar, Matahin and Urouba. The troops are pushing toward the western edge of Mosul's densely populated old city center, where roughly 400,000 residents are believed to still be trapped under IS rule.
Meanwhile, the federal police and interior ministry special forces, known as Rapid Response, continued their battles on the southern and western front lines at the edge of the old city center, a security source told Xinhua on condition of anonymity.
The troops are trying to advance through the narrow streets in the old neighborhoods around the historical al-Nuri Mosque in the middle of Mosul's old city center, the source said.
The progress in the old city center is much slower than the early phases of the offensive after the troops restricted the use of bombs and increased sniper fire against terrorist militants holed up in densely populated old city center, the source added.
The fierce battles brought the total number of civilians who left their homes in the western side of Mosul to 281,630 people, according to latest statement by the Iraqi Migration and Displaced Ministry.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is also the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, announced the start of an offensive on February 19 to drive extremist militants out of the western side of Mosul, locally known as the right bank of Tigris River which bisects the city.
Late in January, Abadi declared the liberation of the eastern side of Mosul, or the left bank of Tigris, after more than 100 days of fighting against IS militants.
However, the western part of Mosul, with its narrow streets and a population of between 750,000 and 800,000, appears to be a bigger challenge to the Iraqi forces.
Mosul, 400 km north of the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, has been under IS control since June 2014, when government forces abandoned their weapons and fled, enabling IS militants to take control of parts of Iraq's northern and western regions.