Middle East

Iraqi troops 'repel militant attack on Samarra'

Iraq special forces personnel in Baghdad (30 April 2014) Image copyright AP
Image caption The assault was stopped when helicopter gunships and special forces personnel arrived in Samarra

Iraqi security forces have repelled a large-scale attack by militants on the central city of Samarra, officials say.

Gunmen travelling in dozens of vehicles attacked checkpoints on the east and west on Thursday morning before taking control of several areas.

The army responded with helicopter strikes in which officials said about 80 insurgents died.

A curfew has been imposed on the city and reinforcements sent from the capital Baghdad.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, but Sunni militants and tribesmen allied to the jihadist Islamist State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) have seized parts of the city of Ramadi and most of Falluja.

'Terrified'

Witnesses and security sources said dozens of heavily armed militants attacked checkpoints and police stations on the outskirts of Samarra early on Thursday, before moving into the city.

The assailants seized control of the municipality building and university, raising the black flag associated with jihadist groups over both buildings, police told the Reuters news agency.

They also reportedly occupied Samarra's two largest mosques and announced the "liberation" of the city via loudspeaker, urging residents to join their war against the government.

The militants moved within about 2km (1.2 miles) of the Askari shrine, one of the holiest sites in Shia Islam, whose destruction by al-Qaeda in 2006 is widely believed to have triggered a continuing spiral of sectarian violence in which tens of thousands have died.

"People are terrified. We haven't slept since the attack started at 03:30 [00:30 GMT]," resident Mustafa al-Sammaraie told Reuters. "I saw some of them pass in front of our house - gunmen with long beards and Afghan dress on a pickup truck."

The advance was eventually halted when helicopter gunships and military reinforcements, including members of Iraq's elite counter-terrorism forces, were sent in to attack their positions.

The head of the Samarra Special Operations Command, Lt-Gen Sabah al-Fatlawi, later declared that security forces and pro-government tribesmen had forced the militants to withdraw.

"We have completely dismissed the armed groups from Samarra and we are now pursuing them outside the city," he told the AFP news agency. "We were able to kill 80 [militants] in strikes and attacks and clashes, from house to house and one street to another."

At least 12 security personnel were reportedly also killed.

A member of the Salahuddin provincial council said he was worried that the militants would now seek to gain control of other towns and cities, amid reports of clashes in Suleiman Beg and a curfew in Baiji.

In other violence on Thursday, bombings in Baghdad left three people dead, while four others were shot dead in the northern city of Mosul, security and medical officials said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) also said a team had delivered medical supplies to Falluja for the first time since January, when ISIS and its allies moved in.

"The situation is very worrying," said Patricia Guiote, leader of the team. "People are enduring a severe shortage of food, water and healthcare."

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