Florida airport shooting suspect inspired by Islamic State: media

Travelers and airport workers evacuated at Ft. Lauderdale airport

(Reuters) – An Iraq war veteran accused of killing five people at a Florida airport told investigators he was inspired by Islamic State and previously chatted online with Islamist extremists, an FBI agent testified on Tuesday, U.S. media reported.

Esteban Santiago, 26, was ordered held in jail until a Jan. 30 arraignment, court records show. At that time he would enter a formal plea to charges that he opened fire in the baggage claim area of the Fort Lauderdale airport on Jan. 6.

“He has admitted to all of the facts with respect to the terrible and tragic events of Jan. 6,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Rick Del Toro said at the federal court hearing in Fort Lauderdale, NBC 6 South Florida television reported. “These were vulnerable victims who he shot down methodically.”

Reuters was not immediately able to reach U.S. prosecutors or the Federal Bureau of Investigation to confirm the media reports.

Santiago, a private first class in the National Guard who served in Iraq from 2010 to 2011, traveled from Alaska to Florida with a handgun and ammunition in his checked luggage, officials said.

Upon retrieving his gun case from the luggage carousel, he went to a bathroom to load the weapon and then opened fire on others waiting for their bags, investigators said.

FBI special agent Michael Ferlazzo testified Santiago told interrogators he carried out the attack on behalf of Islamic State and that he had been in contact with others on jihadist chat rooms who were planning attacks.

“It was a group of like-minded individuals who were all planning attacks,” Ferlazzo said, according to NBC 6.

The FBI has said Santiago previously displayed erratic behavior, entering the FBI office in Anchorage in November and saying his mind was being controlled by a U.S. intelligence agency.

The FBI turned him over to local police, who took him to a medical facility for a mental evaluation, officials said.

Police took a handgun from him but returned it last month after a medical evaluation found he was not mentally ill, authorities said.

Santiago used the same weapon in the airport attack, agents testified, the Sun Sentinel reported.

His defense team did not challenge the prosecution’s argument that Santiago posed a flight risk and said he was prepared to be detained through his trial, CNN said.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta in New York; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Lisa Shumaker)

In northern Aleppo, children return to school used as Islamic State prison

schoolchildren sit on mats as they return to school in Aleppo after Islamic State driven out

By Khalil Ashawi

AL-RAI, Syria (Reuters) – Sifting through ripped up textbooks and writing on broken whiteboards, Syrian children returned this week to a dilapidated small-town school that was used by Islamic State militants as a prison for more than two years.

With no chairs or desks, around 250 children huddled in classrooms on mats to stay off the cold concrete at the Aisha Mother of the Believers school in al-Rai, in the northern Aleppo hinterland near the Turkish border.

The students, aged 5-15, were given notebooks and pens on their first day back on Monday by seven volunteers who teach reading, writing and maths and helped get the school habitable again over the past six weeks.

“(I feel) joy, because I was able to bring back to school this number of students in a short period,” said volunteer Khalil al-Fayad. “(But also) heartbreak because of the bad condition (of the school).”

The school previously taught 500 students before being seized 2 1/2 years ago by Islamic State insurgents, who slapped logos on school bags bearing the slogan “Cubs of the Caliphate”, residents said.

The principal and teachers fled the area when Islamic State took over and parents stopped sending their children to the school, which closed after two months and was used to house prisoners of the ultra-hardline jihadists.

Volunteers set about trying to return the school to its previous standards last month in al-Rai after Syrian Free Army rebels backed by the Turkish military ousted Islamic State from the area.

With shattered windows, bullet strewn walls, debris and broken equipment still present, there is plenty left to do for the team of volunteers, who say they are seeking funding from local and Turkish authorities.

“(I) fear not being able to continue what we are doing if the situation remains the same and the lack of support continues,” Al-Fayad said.

(Writing by Patrick Johnston; editing by Mark Heinrich)

As caliphate crumbles, Islamic State lashes out in Iraq

People look into the remains of a car after being bombed

By John Davison

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Two days after Iraqi forces launched a new push against Islamic State in Mosul, bomb blasts ripped through a marketplace in central Baghdad – the start of a spate of attacks that appear to signal a shift in tactics by the Islamist group.

The Sunni jihadists have targeted Shi’ite Muslim civilians. Raids on police and army posts in other cities, also claimed by Islamic State, have accompanied the bombings.

The attacks show that even if Islamic State loses the Iraqi side of its self-styled caliphate, the threat from the group may not subside.

It will likely switch from ruling territory to pursuing insurgency tactics, seeking to reignite the sectarian tensions that fueled its rise, diplomats and security analysts say.

In addition to operations in and around Baghdad, IS has carried out attacks in the region and Europe as it has come under pressure in Syria and Iraq.

In Iraq, U.S.-backed Iraqi forces are driving IS out of Mosul, its largest urban center in the vast territories it seized 2-1/2 years ago there and in neighboring Syria.

Iraq’s government is aware of the challenge it faces in stemming the IS threat after Mosul.

“Terrorism uses the weapon of sectarianism in Iraq and Syria … in order to drive people and communities apart and take control of them,” Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi told Iraqi politicians and officials in Baghdad on Saturday.

“(We must) not allow the conditions that existed before Daesh (Islamic State),” he said, urging politicians to shun sectarianism and pledging to fight corruption, which plagued security forces before Islamic State’s big advances in 2014.

As well as improving security, authorities must involve local people in intelligence efforts and improve the lot of marginalized Sunnis, especially the 3 million displaced by fighting, the analysts said.

Failure to do so could give IS, also known as Daesh, ISIS and ISIL, space to regroup and sow sectarian strife.

Islamic State’s main target in a post-Mosul insurgency would likely be Baghdad and surrounding areas, a senior Western diplomat told Reuters.

“What you’re seeing now are elements of Daesh that were left in Anbar (province) following the liberation of Ramadi, Falluja, Hit, Haditha … they’re also being reinforced across the border from Syria,” the diplomat said.

‘HIGHER TEMPO’ OF ATTACKS

Iraqi forces last year drove the jihadists out of strongholds in Anbar, the heartland of Sunni tribes who resent the Shi’ite-led government in Baghdad.

Some militants went to ground in those areas, as Iraqi forces have dealt them a big blow there and in Mosul, the diplomat said. But they are making their presence felt again with recent attacks.

Repeated use of vehicle bombs this month, a trend that had dropped off in Baghdad by late last year, shows that militant networks around the capital have been revived, said Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“We’ve certainly seen ISIS move to a slightly higher tempo at the start of the year,” he said.

“It’s going to be a long struggle because these networks adapt, so you might disrupt them for a six-month period but they’re determined to reappear.”

Through new attacks mostly targeting Shi’ites, the Sunni extremist group aims not only to distract from military losses but to raise sectarian tensions.

Authorities must address grievances such as corruption and Sunni disenfranchisement that IS has exploited if growing violence is to be avoided, foreign and Iraqi observers said.

The battle for Mosul has brought some intelligence successes, according to military officials, who say local informers have been crucial in helping troops take on the militants.

KEEPING SUNNIS ON SIDE

Iraqi troops have tried to avoid killing civilians even as IS hides among and targets them. Residents glad to be rid of the group, which conducted public executions and cut the hands off thieves, have largely welcomed Iraqi forces.

“The question is, can they keep that trust?” said Baghdad-based security analyst Hisham al-Hashimi, who advises the government on Islamic State, arguing this would be tougher in areas closer to Baghdad.

“Intelligence in cities retaken from IS (near the capital) is weak. They’ve used local sources to arrest people, but suspects are often released with a bribe.”

As it swept through Iraq in 2014, IS exploited feelings in some Sunni areas that Shi’ite-dominated security forces were targeting them.

Current gaps in intelligence could be plugged through a delicate handling of relations between the state and those communities, another senior Western diplomat said.

For example, Sunni policemen should be trained and sent into the areas with a Sunni population, the diplomat said.

Ihsan al-Shammari, head of the Iraqi Centre for Political Thought, said Prime Minister Abadi grasps what needs to be done to eradicate the threat from Islamic State. The test will be achieving that in a difficult security environment.

“Rebuilding, bringing law and order, and returning the displaced … could be a road map for achieving calm,” Shammari said.

(Reporting by John Davison; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Wife of Orlando nightclub gunman arrested on federal charges

Police in front of apartment building

By Daniel Levine

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – The FBI on Monday arrested the wife of the gunman who killed 49 people at an Orlando gay nightclub last year, a massacre that intensified fears about attacks against Americans inspired by Islamic State, officials said.

Noor Salman, 30, is being charged with obstruction of justice and aiding and abetting by providing material support to a terrorist organization, Orlando Police Chief John Mina said in a statement.Salman’s arrest came seven months after her husband, Omar Mateen, went on a hours-long siege at the Florida club that ended when police killed him. She was due to appear in federal court in Oakland, California on Tuesday morning.

“Certainly I can confirm that an arrest did occur in this case,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch told MSNBC.

“We said from the beginning we were going to look at every aspect of this case, every aspect of this shooter’s life to determine – not just why did he take these actions, but who else knew about them, was anyone else involved?” Lynch said.

Salman, who has a young son by Mateen, was arrested at her home outside San Francisco, The New York Times reported, citing an unnamed law enforcement official. Salman has moved at least three times since the attack, attempting to avoid the news media, The Times said.

The daughter of parents who immigrated from the West Bank in 1985, Salman was repeatedly questioned by law enforcement interrogators after the club attack, telling them she was with Mateen when he bought ammunition and conducted surveillance of the club.

But she denied any involvement in the attack or any knowledge of her husband’s plans, she told the Times in an interview published on Nov. 1.

“I was unaware of everything,” Salman told the Times. “I don’t condone what he has done. I am very sorry for what has happened. He has hurt a lot of people.”Her husband, who was 29 at the time of his death, claimed a connection to or support for multiple Islamist extremist groups, including al Qaeda, Hezbollah, al Nusra and Islamic State, Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey told reporters a few days after the attack.

During the siege, Mateen spoke to a 911 emergency dispatcher and expressed solidarity with an al Nusra suicide bomber as well as Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh.

Representatives of the FBI could not be reached immediately for more details.

The Orlando massacre came about seven months after a husband and wife who sympathized with Islamic extremists opened fire in December 2015 on a holiday party in San Bernardino, California, killing 14 and wounding 22 others.

(Additional reporting by Frank McGurty and Daniel Trotta; Editing by Marguerita Choy and Cynthia Osterman)

Dozens reported dead as Syrian army fights Islamic State

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Fighting between Islamic State and the Syrian army has killed dozens since Saturday in Deir al-Zor, where the militant group has launched an assault to capture a government enclave in the city, a monitoring group reported.

At least 82 people have been killed in the fighting, which is the heaviest in the city for a year, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Monday.

The dead comprised 28 from the army and allied militia, at least 40 Islamic State fighters, and 14 civilians, the British-based monitoring group said.

Syrian state news agency SANA said the army had killed dozens of Islamic State fighters in attacks on the group’s positions around Deir al-Zor.

Islamic State has held most of Deir al-Zor and the surrounding area since 2015, but the government has retained control of the airport and neighboring districts in the city, located in eastern Syria on the Euphrates river.

A U.S.-backed coalition of Kurdish and Arab militias and rival Turkish-backed Syrian rebel groups have pushed Islamic State from much of its territory in northern Syria, but it remains embedded in the country’s eastern desert and Euphrates basin.

Last month it recaptured the city of Palmyra, 185km (115 miles) southwest of Deir al-Zor, from the government in an unexpected advance that demonstrated its continuing military threat.

(Reporting By Angus McDowall; editing by Giles Elgood)

Clashes in Nigeria’s divided heartland pile pressure on president

Displaced Nigeria families, fleeing from Boko Haram

By Alexis Akwagyiram

KADUNA, Nigeria (Reuters) – Hundreds of people have died in a surge of ethnically-charged violence in Nigeria’s divided heartlands, officials said, piling pressure on a government already facing Islamist militants in its northeast and rebels in its oil-rich south.

Locals in remote villages in Kaduna state told Reuters Muslim herders had clashed with largely Christian farmers repeatedly in recent weeks, in the worst outbreak of killings in the region since riots killed 800 after elections in 2011.

The fighting triggered by competition over scarce resources has come at a particularly sensitive time for Kaduna city, which is about to become the main air hub in central and northern Nigeria, after the capital Abuja’s airport closes temporarily for runway repairs in March.

Farmer Ibrahim Sabo said cattle herders armed with assault rifles raided his village Kalangai in southern Kaduna in November, forcing him and his family to hide in surrounding fields.

“We left everything we harvested and they took our cattle. We have been running ever since,” said the 75-year-old in Kakura village where he took refuge.

The violence has focused attention on President Muhammadu Buhari, a former military ruler who vowed to restore order in Africa’s most populous nation when he came to power in May 2015.

He held a five-hour session with senior security and army officials in Abuja on Thursday on how to tackle the unrest.

Security agencies are already deploying extra forces to secure Kaduna’s airport and its highway to Abuja, a route often targeted by kidnappers.

That all comes on top of an insurgency by Boko Haram Islamists in the northeast, beaten back last year by a military coalition of neighboring nations, but showing signs of a resurgence with a recent step-up in bombings.

Militants in the southern Niger Delta oil hub have said they are ready to resume pipeline attacks, and there have also been clashes between Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims in Kaduna state.

FESTERING DISPUTES

Locals say the Kaduna violence grew out of festering disputes over territory in October and November, then escalated sharply, exacerbated by north-south, Muslim-Christian tensions in a patchwork nation.

Details of attacks and precise figures are hard to come by in the remote territory.

The national disaster agency NEMA said on Friday it had recorded a total of 204 deaths since October in Kafanchan and Chikun, two of the four municipal districts worst hit by the violence, with no details from the others.

Christian leaders released a statement late December saying 808 people had died – an estimate dismissed by Kaduna state police commissioner Agyole Abeh who did not give his own figure.

The authorities had already sent in reinforcements – 10 units, each with 63 police officers, using 20 armored cars, he added.

Community group, the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria, said herdsmen had been “unjustifiably accused and maligned” in the area and had also come under attack, prompting a cycle of revenge.

There were few signs of the promised police or army reinforcements outside the center of Kaduna city.

Tarmac roads gave way to red soil dirt tracks leading to Kakura, on the edge of the territory that has seen the worst fighting.

Another farmer, Yusuf Dogo, said dozens of armed herdsmen burned houses in his village of Pasakori in three quick raids, forcing 700 people to flee in October.

“They ran through our village and started shooting randomly,” he said. “Later, they brought their cattle and they ate everything.”

(Additional reporting by Garba Muhammad in Kaduna and Felix Onuah in Abuja; Editing by Ulf Laessing and Andrew Heavens)

Iraqi forces battle Islamic State near Tigris river in Mosul

Iraqi rapid response fighting Islamic State in Mosul

By Isabel Coles

MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) – Iraqi special forces battled Islamic State militants in districts near the Tigris river in Mosul on Monday as they sought to bring more of the east of the city back under government control.

The latest clashes occurred in the neighboring Shurta and Andalus districts. At least three Islamic State suicide car bombs targeted Iraqi forces in Andalus. There was no immediate word on any casualties. In an online post, Islamic State said it had carried out a “martyrdom operation” in the area.

Iraq’s elite Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) said the militants, who seized Mosul in 2014 as they swept across much of northern Iraq, only to since lose much of that terrain to government counter-offensives, were fighting back hard.

“We’ve begun breaching (Shurta) but there was an attack a few moments ago. By the end of the day we’ll make some progress,” CTS spokesman Sabah al-Numan said.

Shurta and Andalus are situated close to the eastern bank of the Tigris, separated only by some woodland, and within sight of the city’s northernmost bridge across the river.

Iraqi forces, which have reached three of the five bridges, say they will soon fully control the eastern bank. They have already taken areas of the river bank further south.

Once the east bank is recaptured, they can begin attacks on western Mosul, which the Sunni Muslim extremist insurgents still hold.

Iraqi forces have seized most of the east in a 3-month-old U.S.-backed campaign to oust the militants from Iraq’s second largest city, Islamic State’s last major Iraqi stronghold. The Tigris bisects Mosul from north to south.

A Reuters cameraman in a southern district along the Tigris said snipers from elite interior ministry combat units were firing across the river at Islamic State positions.

Fighting has intensified since the turn of the year as Iraqi forces have renewed an offensive against the ultra-hardline militants. Troops had got bogged down in late November and December after entering Mosul as IS fighters fought back with car bombs and snipers, and concealed themselves among a civilian population of up to 1.5 million.

MORE PEOPLE MADE HOMELESS

The United Nations said a further 32,000 Mosul residents had fled the city in just over two weeks, bringing the total number of people made homeless in the campaign to retake Mosul to 161,000.

A resident in western Mosul, reached by phone, said Islamic State combatants had stopped people living in the west from crossing the river to the east.

Another resident said a number of IS militants, including senior leaders in western Mosul, had left the city in the direction of Tal Afar, a town toward the Syrian border.

Shi’ite Muslim militias have advanced on IS-held Tal Afar, and linked up with Kurdish fighters nearby in November.

The Mosul offensive, supported by U.S. coalition air power, involves 100,000-strong combined forces of Iraqi troops, Kurdish peshmerga fighters and Shi’ite militias.

As IS has lost territory in its Mosul bastion, it has carried out bombing attacks in Baghdad and raids on police and army outposts elsewhere in the country. Since the turn of the year, attacks in Baghdad have killed dozens of people.

New York-based Human Rights watch said on Monday that Islamic State’s bombings, which have targeted crowded markets, amounted to “crimes against humanity”.

“(IS) has routinely carried out devastating attacks that appear designed to inflict maximum death and suffering on ordinary Iraqis,” HRW said in a statement. It urged the Iraqi government to greater assist victims of militant attacks.

(Reporting by Isabel Coles in Mosul, Saif Hameed and John Davison in Baghdad; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Turkish court arrests two Uighurs in relation to Istanbul nightclub attack

Turkey police holding pictures of suspects

ANKARA (Reuters) – Two Chinese nationals of Uighur origin were arrested on Friday for suspected links to the mass shooting in an Istanbul night club on New Year’s Eve, state-run Anadolu agency said.

Two suspects, Omar Asim and Abuliezi Abuduhamiti, who are Chinese citizens, were remanded in custody on charges of being members of an armed terrorist organization, and aiding in 39 counts of murder.

Turkish authorities last week said the man who killed 39 people in an attack on an Istanbul nightclub was probably an ethnic Uighur.

Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was revenge for Turkish military involvement in Syria.

Anadolu news agency also said 35 people had been detained so far in relation to the attack. Uighurs were among those detained, local media reports said.

The Uighurs are a largely Muslim, Turkic-speaking minority in far western China with significant diaspora communities across Central Asia and Turkey.

The suspect, who authorities have not named, shot his way into exclusive Istanbul nightclub Reina and opened fire with an automatic rifle, throwing stun grenades to allow himself to reload and shooting the wounded on the ground.

Among those killed in the attack were Turks and visitors from several Arab nations, India and Canada.

(Writing by Ece Toksabay; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Iraqi forces reach second Mosul bridge, enter university complex: military

Iraq Special forces fighting militants

By Isabel Coles and John Davison

MOSUL, Iraq/BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraqi special forces stormed the Mosul University complex in the city’s northeast on Friday and pushed Islamic State further back to reach another bridge across the Tigris river, the military said.

The militants were fighting back at the university, which they had seized when they took over the city in 2014. A Reuters reporter witnessed heavy clashes inside the campus.

Iraqi forces have recaptured most districts in eastern Mosul in nearly three months of a U.S.-backed offensive, which accelerated at the turn of the year with new tactics and better coordination.

They aim to take full control of the eastern bank of the Tigris river, which bisects Mosul from north to south, before launching attacks on the west, still fully in Islamic State hands.

Driving the ultra-hardline Islamist group out of its Mosul stronghold will probably spell the end for the Iraqi side of the caliphate it has declared, stretching into Syria.

Senior Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) commander Sami al-Aridhi said the university was the most important Islamic State base in the eastern half of the city.

BULLDOZERS

He said the CTS had taken over a hill overlooking parts of the campus, including the technical college. “Forces are heading into the depths of the university,” he said.

Earlier, bulldozers had smashed through a wall surrounding the campus and dozens of CTS troops sprinted through carrying rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

An Iraqi officer said army units backed by air strikes had also taken control of Hadba district, north of the university, and would aid the assault on the complex.

Another CTS commander said the capture of the university would enable further advances as it overlooks areas closer to the river.

Advances by Iraqi forces have gathered pace in the last two weeks after troops got bogged down in fierce street fighting in late November and December and militants hid among the civilian population.

New tactics employed since the turn of the year, including a night raid and better defences against suicide car bombs, have given the campaign fresh momentum, U.S. and Iraqi military officials say.

Better coordination between different military divisions, such as the elite CTS and the regular army, has also helped, a senior Western diplomat told Reuters this week.

FIVE BRIDGES

“As (Islamic State) are pulled away to fight CTS, that’s the opportunity for the Iraqi army to attack against a much weaker defence,” the diplomat said.

Securing areas along the Tigris would be crucial, the diplomat added.

“Once you get to the river, you can then slowly mop it up, because you can then cut the lines of communication.”

CTS spokesman Sabah al-Numan told state television: “God willing, within a short period the complete clearing of the left bank of the Tigris will be announced.”

In a separate advance further south in the city, other elite CTS units reached the Second Bridge, also called Freedom Bridge, one of five across the Tigris, the military said in a statement reported by state TV.

Iraqi forces have now reached Mosul’s two southernmost bridges, having battled their way to the Fourth Bridge several days ago.

Assaults on the western half of Mosul are expected to begin once Iraqi forces have secured the east bank.

All the bridges have been hit by U.S. coalition air strikes in an effort to hamper Islamic State’s movements. U.S. and Iraqi military officials say Islamic State has further damaged at least two of them to try to hamper an army advance.

(Reporting by Isabel Coles in Mosul; John Davison and Saif Hameed in Baghdad; Writing by John Davison; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Iraqi forces link up in north Mosul, make gains in southeast

Iraqi soldier standing guard over civilians who fled Mosul and Islamic State

By John Davison and Stephen Kalin

BAGHDAD/ERBIL, Iraq (Reuters) – Iraqi forces joined flanks in northern Mosul and drove back Islamic State militants in the southeast on Thursday in a renewed push that has brought them closer to controlling the eastern half of the city.

Forces from the elite Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) took control of 7th Nissan and Sadeeq districts, linking up with army troops that had pushed through al-Hadba neighbourhood, CTS spokesman Sabah al-Numan told Reuters.

“This is considered contact between the troops of the northern front and CTS. This… will prevent any gap between the axes which the enemy could use,” he said by phone. “The enemy is now located only in front of the troops, not at their sides.”

Numan said more than 85 percent of eastern Mosul was now under control of pro-government forces, up from nearly 75 percent a week ago.

Brett McGurk, Washington’s envoy to the U.S.-led coalition backing the Iraqi offensive with air strikes, training and advice, called the link-up a “milestone” and said in a tweet that Islamic State’s defences were weakening.

The campaign to recapture Mosul, Islamic State’s last major stronghold in Iraq and the largest urban centre anywhere in the sprawling territory it once controlled, has pushed ahead with renewed vigour since the turn of the year after troops got bogged down inside the city in late November and December.

New tactics, including a night raid, better defences against suicide car bomb attacks and improved coordination between the army and security forces operating on different fronts, have helped forge momentum, U.S and Iraqi officers say.

When it launched the offensive in October, the Iraqi government hoped to have retaken the city by the end of 2016, but Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in December it could now take another three months to drive the militants out.

2016 DEATH TOLL

Iraq’s militarised federal police and rapid response division, an elite Interior Ministry unit, are also battling Islamic State inside Mosul.

They made gains on Thursday in southeastern districts where advances have been particularly tough.

Rapid response units advanced in the Sumer district, which lies on the eastern bank of the Tigris River, and also in neighbouring Sahiroun, according to a military statement.

Forces have pressed forward much more slowly in that area than troops in the east and northeast which commanders blamed on the militants’ hiding among civilians and firing at those who tried to flee.

The ultra-hardline group’s loss of Mosul would probably spell the end for the Iraqi side of its self-styled caliphate, which it declared after sweeping through parts of Iraq and Syria in 2014, though militants will likely still be able to wage an insurgency in both countries and plan attacks on the West.

Iraq Body Count (IBC), a group run by academics and peace activists that has been counting violent deaths in the country since 2003, estimated that more than 16,000 civilians were killed in Iraq in 2016, down about 1,000 from the year before.

Around three-quarters of those identified were men, with the rest spilt evenly between women and children, IBC said in a report.

More than two-thirds of the fatalities occurred in the capital province of Baghdad and Nineveh, where Mosul is located, it said.

Reuters could not independently verify the figures.

(Reporting by John Davison in Baghdad and Stephen Kalin in Erbil; Editing by Ralph Boulton)