Members of the Iraqi forces advance towards the Old City in western Mosul on March 13, 2017
Mosul (Iraq) (AFP) - Iraqi forces said Tuesday they recaptured Mosul train station, once one of the country's main rail hubs and the latest in a series of key sites retaken from jihadists.
Baghdad's forces launched a major drive last month to oust the Islamic State group from west Mosul, a battle that has pushed more than 80,000 people to flee their homes in less than three weeks.
Iraqi forces have now taken back a series of neighbourhoods as well as sites including the city's airport, the Mosul museum and the provincial government headquarters since the operation began.
Some, including the museum which was vandalised by IS, have been heavily damaged, and it is likely to be a long time before trains again run to and from Mosul.
But retaking the sites has meant symbolic victories for Iraqi forces and also brings them closer to fully recapturing west Mosul, despite the prospect of tough fighting ahead.
Lieutenant General Raed Shakir Jawdat, the commander of the federal police, said his forces have retaken the train station and a nearby bus station, both of which are southwest of Mosul's Old City.
The train station was the "main corridor from the north to the south and carries goods from Turkey and Syria to Baghdad and Basra", Salam Jabr Saloom, the director general of Iraq's state-owned railway company, told AFP.
Because of its importance, the station was "exposed to many terrorist attacks before the entry of Daesh", Saloom said, using an Arabic acronym for IS.
Built in the 1940s, it was "very important from a trade standpoint" as it was a "launch point for trains carrying goods to Syria and Turkey and back", railway company spokesman Abdulsattar Mohsen said.
"But it stopped after the Daesh attack on Mosul," Mohsen said, referring to an IS offensive that overran the city and swathes of other territory north and west of Baghdad in 2014.
Trains also once carried passengers to and from Mosul, but have not done so since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime by US-led forces in 2003, he said.
- 'Horrendous conditions' at prisons -
Iraqi forces are operating on the edge of the Old City, a warren of narrow streets and closely spaced buildings where hundreds of thousands of people may still be living.
The area, in which they will have to advance on foot when armoured vehicles cannot enter the small streets, could see some of the toughest fighting of the Mosul campaign.
Iraqi forces are also battling IS outside the city, with the Joint Operations Command announcing that soldiers from the 16th Division had recaptured the villages of Sheikh Mohammed and Al-Jamaliyah northwest of Mosul.
More than 80,000 people have fled west Mosul since February 25, according to the International Organization for Migration.
And 238,000 people are currently displaced due to fighting in the Mosul area, while more fled but later returned to their homes, the IOM said.
Security forces are searching for jihadists trying to sneak out of the city among civilians, and according to Human Rights Watch, more than 1,200 men and boys suspected of IS ties are being held in "horrendous conditions" at sites south of Mosul.
"The Iraqi interior ministry is holding at least 1,269 detainees, including boys as young as 13, without charge in horrendous conditions and with limited access to medical care at... makeshift prisons," HRW said in a report.
"At least four prisoners have died, in cases that appear to be linked to lack of proper medical care and poor conditions and two prisoners' legs have been amputated, apparently because of lack of treatment for treatable wounds," it said.
The facilities are in Qayyarah and Hamam al-Alil, said HRW, which visited some of them earlier this month.
The rights watchdog said the makeshift prisons were under the authority of the interior ministry intelligence service, which is interrogating people handed over by security forces fighting IS.
Iraq was under heavy pressure to improve its procedures for the Mosul operation after people reported torture and other abuses during screening of those who fled Fallujah, which Baghdad's forces retook from IS last year.
While changes do seem to have been made, the HRW allegations indicate that significant problems remain with screening procedures -- problems that breed anger and resentment that drives more people into the arms of militants.