NEAR MOSUL, Iraq (CNN) — Iraqi forces have retaken two Christian towns after more than two years of brutal rule by ISIS militants, military officials say — part of an ongoing operation to liberate the key city of Mosul.
A multi-ethnic and multi-religious coalition of more than around 100,000 people have been in a decisive push toward Mosul since Monday, sweeping clear swathes of Nineveh province from ISIS militants.
The province is the center of Iraq’s diversity, home to Christians, Kurds, Yazidis, Turkmen, Sunnis and Shias alike.
Lt. Gen. Riyad Jalal, commander of the Iraqi ground forces, told state-run al-Iraqiya TV that the town of Hamdaniya, also known as Qaraqosh, had been freed and that authorities were now in the process of bringing back local officials to reopen the main public buildings and plan the repair of infrastructure.
Iraqi forces and a Christian paramilitary group entered the town on Wednesday and faced fierce resistance from ISIS fighters for several days. Forces had pushed the militants into the town center, where they were pounded by coalition air strikes supporting the assault.
Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Maliki, commander of the Iraqi 9th armored division, said at least 50 ISIS militants were killed and many of their equipment destroyed in the assault. His forces now are cleansing the city from IEDs and sweeping buildings in case of any ISIS militant might be hiding in the town, he said.
Church bells ring
A few kilometers to the south on Saturday, church bells rang out for the first time since ISIS seized the town more than two years ago, local networks reported, showing images of an Iraqi soldier ringing the bells in a symbolic declaration the town had been freed.
Iraq officials claimed that some 200 ISIS fighters had been killed in the assault.
The liberation of the Christian towns brings coalition forces closer to Mosul. The fighting is expected to intensify the nearer they get to the city, several officials have said.
In a savage show of force, ISIS militants rounded up and shot dead 284 men and boys as the coalition tightened the noose around Mosul, an Iraqi intelligence source told CNN.
Those killed on Thursday and Friday this week were used as human shields against attacks forcing ISIS out of southern parts of Mosul, the source said, adding that the militant group had dumped the bodies in a mass grave at the defunct College of Agriculture in northern Mosul.
The source asked for anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media. CNN could not independently confirm the killings.
Developing story – more to come