2016-10-19 14:47:21

on the first day of their offensive to retake the city of Mosul. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

Nine hundred civilians have fled the embattled Iraqi city of Mosul — the first large group known to have escaped since the government began its offensive to drive out the Islamic State two days ago, according to a media report Wednesday.

The civilians are in a refugee camp in neighboring Syria after crossing the border, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said, according to the BBC.

In the worst-case scenario, more than one million civilians could flee Iraq's second largest city, UNHCR said. Iraqi and Kurdish authorities are setting up a 5,000-tent refugee camp east of Mosul, ready for an influx of people.

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Lt Gen Qassim al-Maliki, the commander of the Iraqi army's 9th armored division, told CNN that his forces were closing in on the outskirts of Mosul on Wednesday after liberating 13 villages.

He said at least 50 Islamic State fighters and two Iraqi soldiers were killed and dozens of suicide vehicles and numerous improvised explosive devices were destroyed over the last 48 hours. Another Iraqi official told CNN that government soldiers were surrounded by militants near the village of Al Absi.

The Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS, captured Mosul in the summer of 2014. The military operation to retake the city, the biggest in the country since U.S. troops withdrew in 2011, is expected to take weeks or months.

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