The bloody battle for Mosul took a deadly turn Friday as cowardly jihadists executed at least 284 innocent people.
ISIS militants rounded up men and boys from villages near the northern Iraqi city and shot them before dumping their corpses in a mass grave using a bulldozer, CNN reported, citing an Iraqi intelligence source.
The barbaric move followed a dire and eerily prescient warning from the United Nations about the lengths that the militant group would go to as Iraqi forces close in on the ISIS stronghold.
Earlier in the week, Islamic radicals abducted 550 families and moved them to strategic locations in the city, said Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The terrorist tactic — intended to deter air strikes — came as the extremist fighters offered deadly resistance, unleashing a wave of snipers, suicide bombers, and a trail of hidden explosives as Iraqi forces made their way toward the city.
“We know (ISIS) has no regard for human life, which is why it is incumbent upon the Iraqi government to do its utmost to protect civilians,” Zeid said.
The UN had “verified information” that ISIS forced residents from the nearby villages of Samalia and Najafia into Mosul earlier in the week, part of an “apparent policy of preventing civilians from escaping to areas controlled by Iraqi security forces.”
On top of the disturbing number of dead reported Friday, Zeid said his office was also investigating reports that the group had killed at least 40 civilians for suspected disloyalty.
“There is a grave danger that ISIL fighters will not only use such vulnerable people as human shields but may opt to kill them rather than see them liberated,” he said, using an alternate name for the sadistic group.
Other terror groups have used innocent civilians as human shields. Israeli officials have said for years that Hamas used the tactic, waging war from crowded apartments and hospitals.
Fighting intensified Friday in the northern Iraqi town of Bartella, about 9 miles south of Mosul, a city of 1.5 million.
Gunfire erupted and more than a dozen cars strapped with explosives were set off before a cautious calm enveloped the historically Christian town.
As the smoke cleared and fighting subsided, the peal of church bells replaced the cacophony of bullets and the clamor of mortars.
“Bartella is now safe and secured. It is under our complete control,” said Major Gen. Maan Saadi, the head of Iraqi special forces.
The stone sanctuary of Saint Matthew’s Syriac Orthodox Church, where militants had removed crosses and defaced statues, was cluttered with remnants of an ISIS training facility.
Unused rockets stood in the adjoining cemetery, resting on the gravestones. More than 80 militants were killed in the battle, Saadi added.
It was not clear how many casualties were suffered by the Iraqi forces.
A day earlier, tragedy struck as a sailor with the U.S. Navy, 34-year-old Jason Finan, was killed when the armored car he was riding in struck a roadside bomb, officials said.
The California native was one of roughly 100 U.S. service members assisting in the operation.
In an effort to divert attention from their losses near Mosul, ISIS militants launched a bloody wave of predawn attacks on the city of Kirkuk, killing at least 14 people.
Explosions rocked the Kurdish-controlled town, about 100 miles from Mosul, as smoke was seen billowing from the provincial headquarters.
The long-awaited offensive to reclaim Mosul was launched Monday, more than two years after jihadists seized the territory, along with much of northern Iraq.
About 30,000 Iraqi security forces and Kurdish peshmerga fighters, assisted by U.S.-led coalition warplanes and military advisors, are taking part in the liberation effort. Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi said the initial stages of the operation were moving quickly, but that could change.
“I believe it will be more clear within the coming weeks ... how quickly this war will end,” al-Abadi said. “If they (ISIS) decide to defend the actual city then the process will slow down.”
The country’s top Shiite cleric called on soldiers taking part in the offensive to protect civilians, and asked residents of Mosul, a mainly Sunni city, to cooperate with security forces.
“We stress today upon our beloved fighters, as we have before on many occasions, that they exercise the greatest degree of restraint in dealing with civilians stuck in the areas where there is fighting,” the reclusive Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said in a Friday sermon read by an aide.
“Protect them and prevent any harm to them by all possible means.”
Some 3,900 people, or about 650 families, have fled Mosul and the nearby Hamdaniyah district over the past five days, according to Adrian Edwards of the UN refugee agency.
As the battle for territory continues, the UN has warned as many as 200,000 people could be displaced in the first two weeks of the conflict. Camps are being built in preparation for the flood of people leaving the city.