Bashiqa (Iraq), Nov 8 :  Iraqi Kurdish forces have seized the town of Bashiqa near Mosul from the Islamic State group, an official said today, as US-backed militia forces advanced on the jihadists’ Syrian stronghold Raqa. Capturing Bashiqa would be one of the final steps in securing the eastern approaches to Mosul, three weeks into an offensive by Iraqi forces to retake the country’s second city. The town was under the “complete control” of Kurdish peshmerga forces, Jabbar Yawar, the secretary general of the Kurdish regional ministry responsible for the fighters, told AFP.

“Our forces are clearing mines and sweeping the city,” Yawar said. An AFP correspondent on the outskirts of Bashiqa said clashes were ongoing, with three air strikes hitting the town and gunfire and an explosion heard from inside. Peshmerga officials said there were still some suicide bombers and snipers inside. “We are conducting clearing operations from house to house. The Daesh fighters are travelling inside tunnels,” said Colonel Dilshad Mawlud, a peshmerga media official, using an Arabic acronym for IS.

“About five per cent of the town is still under Daesh control,” peshmerga Major General Sayyed Hajjar said. Iraqi forces have been tightening the noose around Mosul since launching the offensive on October 17, with elite troops last week breaching city limits. Upping pressure on the jihadists, the Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance on Saturday launched its own offensive on IS’s other main bastion, the Syrian city of Raqa. Raqa and Mosul are the last major cities in Syria and Iraq under the jihadists’ control and their capture would deal a knockout blow to the self-styled “caliphate” IS declared in mid-2014.

The US-led coalition that launched operations against IS two years ago is providing crucial backing to both offensives, with air strikes and special forces advisers on the ground. SDF forces have been pushing south from areas near the Turkish border towards Raqa and alliance spokeswoman Jihan Sheikh Ahmed said today they had moved to within 36 kilometres of the city.

“Two more villages have been taken since yesterday,” she told AFP, adding that SDF forces had so far advanced 14 kilometres closer to Raqa from Ain Issa, the main staging point for the operation. “The fighting continues; morale is good and our fighters are determined that this offensive will succeed,” she said. Like in the battle for Mosul, the goal of the Raqa offensive is to surround and isolate the jihadists inside the city, before eventually mounting a street-to-street assault. In both cases officials are warning of long and bloody battles ahead, as jihadist forces are expected to put up a fierce fight and use trapped civilians as human shields.