KIRKUK, Iraq — Islamic State militants armed with assault rifles and explosives attacked targets in and around the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk early Friday in an assault that appeared aimed at diverting Iraqi security forces from a massive offensive against the ISIS-held city of Mosul.
At least 11 workers, including two Iranians, were killed when IS militants stormed a power plant north of Kirkuk and then blew themselves up.
The fighting comes amid a Reuters report that Islamic State militants have taken 550 families from villages around Mosul and are holding them close to Islamic State locations in the Iraqi city, probably as human shields, a spokeswoman for the U.N. human rights office said on Friday.
U.N. spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani, citing "corroborated information" from the area, said the office was also investigating reports that Islamic State militants had killed 40 civilians in one village.
Multiple explosions meanwhile rocked Kirkuk, and gun battles were ongoing, said witnesses in Kirkuk, speaking on condition of anonymity as they were concerned for their safety. Much of the fighting was centered on a government compound in the city. They said the streets were largely deserted out of fear of militant snipers.
IS said its fighters targeted the provincial headquarters. The claim was carried by the IS-run Aamaq news agency and could not immediately be verified.
Local Kurdish television channel Rudaw aired footage showing black smoke rising over the city as extended bursts of automatic gunfire rang out. It quoted Kirkuk Gov. Najmadin Karim as saying that the militants have not seized any government buildings.
In the power plant attack, which took place in Dibis, a town north of Kirkuk, three IS suicide bombers entered the facility and took 10 workers hostage, said Maj. Ahmed Kader Ali, the Dibis police chief.
The attackers asked to be taken to the Iranians who worked at the plant. One of the workers took them to the Iranians before escaping. The militants then killed the Iranians and the other workers, and detonated their explosive vests when police arrived, Ali said.
Kirkuk is some 100 miles from the Islamic State-held city of Mosul, where Iraqi forces have been waging a wide-scale offensive since Monday.
The oil-rich city is some 180 miles north of Baghdad and southeast of Mosul. It is claimed by both Iraq's central government and the country's Kurdish region. Kurdish forces assumed full control of Kirkuk in the summer of 2014, as Iraq's army and police crumbled in the face of a lightning advance by IS.
Later Friday, Rudaw TV said all IS militants who took part in the Kirkuk attack had been killed except for two who were holed up in a newly built hotel, which was damaged in the attack and from where they were battling Kurdish forces.
Kirkuk police commander Brig. Gen. Khattab Omer said clashes were still underway, without providing further details. There was no immediate word on casualties among civilians or Kurdish forces in Kirkuk, and the TV report could not immediately be confirmed.
Kemal Kerkuki, a senior commander of Kurdish peshmerga forces west of Kirkuk, said the town where his base is located outside the city also came under attack early on Friday. He said the base is now under control.
He said IS maintains sleeper cells in Kirkuk and the surrounding villages. "We arrested one recently and he confessed," he said, adding that the attackers may have posed as displaced civilians in order to infiltrate the city.
Kirkuk province has absorbed hundreds of thousands of displaced people from neighboring provinces since IS first overran wide stretches of northern and western Iraq in the summer of 2014, capturing Mosul, the country's second largest city.
Iraqi and Kurdish forces backed by a U.S.-led coalition launched a multi-pronged assault this week to retake Mosul and surrounding areas from IS. The operation is the largest undertaken by the Iraqi military since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Iraqi officials said they had advanced as far as the town of Bartella, 15 kilometers (9 miles) from Mosul's outskirts, by Thursday.
IS, which still controls a swath of territory stretching across Syria and Iraq, has a history of launching diversionary attacks on distant fronts when it comes under pressure. In April 2015, Iraqi forces announced the liberation of the central city of Tikrit. The following month, IS militants captured the western Iraqi city of Ramadi and the eastern Syrian city of Palmyra. Both cities have since been retaken by Iraqi and Syrian forces.
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