Islamic militants captured Iraq's second biggest city Mosul overnight, seizing aircraft and weapons caches and releasing hundreds of prisoners.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a Sunni Muslim militant group so extreme that al Qaeda disowned them, took control of a number of the city’s main buildings, including the local government offices, military bases and police stations, after several days of fighting.
The group also overran Mosul's airport, where there were a number of helicopters at the time, and netted weapons and ammunition, parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi said in a televised statement, the Associated Press reported.
An Iraqi activist group posted footage described as showing fires burning at a local army headquarters.
Anti-government fighters took control of the city of Mosul following fierce overnight fighting.
Police and government sources told Reuters that the militants captured a local prison and allowed around a thousand inmates to escape, many of whom were themselves ISIS and al Qaeda fighters.
ISIS also took control of some villages and a military air base outside of the city, Nujaifi said.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who heads the country's Shiite-led government, responded by urging parliament to declare a state of emergency. Speaking in a televised press conference, he asked lawmakers to urgently convene to make the decision.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki asked parliament to declare a state of emergency in Mosul on June 10, after insurgents seized vital areas of the city.
The Iraqi public and authorities should unite "to confront this vicious attack, which will spare no Iraqi," he said, the AP reported.
The group also detained 28 Turkish truck drivers who were transporting fuel to the city. However, a Turkish official told Reuters that they were currently unharmed and authorities hoped they would be freed after they had unloaded their cargo.
As many as 500,000 civilians have now fled the fighting in Mosul and the surrounding area, according to the UN.
Thousands of Iraqis reportedly fled the northern city of Mosul following the assault and takeover of the town by militants.
The city has an estimated population of 1.8 million. A video from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty shows Iraqis escaping the city.
The fall of Mosul will be a major hit to the Iraqi government's attempts to contain Sunni extremists in the country.
Violent Campaign Across Iraq
ISIS, which claims to represent the country's sizable Sunni minority, took the western city of Fallujah early this year and despite repeated efforts, government troops have not been able to dislodge it.
The group has also waged a violent campaign across Iraq involving numerous suicide bombings.
Meanwhile, a concerted offensive by ISIS in Syria over the past six weeks has left hundreds dead, a watchdog group reported.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which gathers information from a network of activists in Syria, said 600 people, including 39 civilians had been killed as ISIS advanced into the east of the country and came up against Islamist factions, including al Qaeda’s official Syrian franchise Jabhat al-Nusra. Another 130,000 civilians fled the fighting, the group said.
ISIS first appeared in Syria around April 2013 after previously operating in Iraq. It quickly attempted to merge with the smaller al-Nusra, but was spurned by both al-Nusra and al Qaeda leadership.
Since then, ISIS has concentrated on seizing territory and implementing its brutal and extreme interpretation of Islamic law instead of fighting with Syrian government troops.
It has been accused of many abuses and atrocities, from the kidnapping and murdering of activists, journalists, and aid agency workers, to slicing off hands, and even crucifying “spies.”
Both Islamist and secular rebel groups often clashed with its fighters as a result, and opposition forces, including an initially reluctant al-Nusra, launched a concerted attack against ISIS earlier this year, beating them back to the area surrounding their stronghold of Ar-Raqqah in north central Syria.
However, the group’s recent offensive has seen it advance to oil-rich Deir al-Zor and the northeast bank of the Euphrates, taking territory from Islamic opposition brigades.