Iraq’s Defence Minister Khalid al-Obeidi has said that Islamic State group leaders and their families have sold their belongings and fled Mosul as Iraqi forces close in on the northern city.
Iraqi forces are conducting operations to set the stage for an assault on Mosul, the country’s second city, which has been held by IS since June 2014, but the final push to retake it is likely still months away.
“A number of the families… and leaders of [IS] in Mosul, they and their families sold their belongings and withdrew towards Syria,” whose border is west of the city, Obeidi told Iraqiya state television.
Some also sought to infiltrate towards Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, north and east of Mosul, Obeidi said during an interview that was broadcast on Saturday night.
Mosul is the last city held by IS in Iraq, but retaking it poses a major challenge, and the operation could unleash a humanitarian crisis unless plans are made for people who would likely flee the fighting.
The Red Cross has said it believes that up to a million Iraqis could be displaced in the coming months by fighting against IS, including the operation to recapture Mosul.
IS overran large areas north and west of Baghdad in 2014, but it has since lost significant ground to Iraqi forces backed by US-led air strikes, training and other assistance.