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Iraq military: Troops take centre of refinery town

Baghdad, Nov 11 (AP) Iraqi soldiers battling the Islamic State group recaptured the heart of the town of Beiji, home to the country’s largest oil refinery, state television and a military official said today.

Retaking Beiji, 250 kilometres (155 miles) north of Baghdad, could allow Iraqi forces a base to attack neighbouring Tikrit, taken by the extremists after their lightning advance this summer. It also represents a morale boost for Iraq’s beleaguered security forces, which saw many of its troops flee the militant offencive.

State television quoted the top army commander in Beiji, Gen Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, as saying troops recaptured the city’s local government and police headquarters at the centre of the town. It aired what appeared to be archival footage of the town showing Iraqi army troops firing their weapons from behind sand barriers.

Al-Saadi later spoke to state television by telephone but the line appeared to be cut off after he said his forces were meeting stiff resistance. A senior military official reached by telephone in Beiji confirmed the recapture of the city centre, but added that intense clashes continued elsewhere in the town.

He told The Associated Press that 75 percent of Beiji was now in the hands of government troops. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to journalists. Government officials in Baghdad offered no immediate comment on the reports.

Al-Saadi said Saturday that his forces had recaptured most of the city and that it would soon be entirely rid of Islamic State group fighters.

There was no word on the fate of the refinery, which lies on the outskirts of the town and has been besieged by Islamic State fighters since June.

The small army unit inside the refinery, resupplied and reinforced by air for months, successfully resisted wave after wave of extremist assaults. Iraq’s army and security forces partially have regrouped after melting away in the face of the summer’s Islamic State offencive.

In recent weeks, they recaptured a string of small towns and villages, but taking Beiji would be strategically significant in what is shaping up to be a drawn-out campaign against the extremists.

Recapturing Beiji also would be a major boost for Iraq’s Shiite-led government and could pave the way for a fresh offencive to drive Islamic State militants from the nearby city of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown and the capital of Salahuddin province.

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