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Iraqi forces launch offensive to retake Fallujah

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BAGHDAD — Iraqi forces have launched an offensive to retake the Islamic State stronghold of Fallujah, in the wake of warning residents to leave before the fighting started.

The US-led coalition that has bombed Islamic State in Iraq and neighbouring Syria for nearly two years was expected to provide air support.

“Zero hour for the liberation of Fallujah has arrived. The moment of great victory has drawn near and Daesh has no choice but to flee,” Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said on his official Twitter feed, using an Arabic acronym for the jihadist group.

He said the offensive would be conducted by the army, police, counterterrorism forces, local tribal fighters, and a coalition of mostly Shiite Muslim militias.

Fallujah, a longtime bastion of Sunni Muslim jihadists 50 kilometres west of Baghdad, was the first city to fall to the jihadists.

Islamic State took control of the city in January 2014, six months before the group declared a caliphate spanning large parts of Iraq and Syria.

Iraqi officials said Shiite militias, including ones backed by neighbouring Iran, may be restricted to operating outside the city proper, as they were largely in the battle for Ramadi, to avoid aggravating sectarian tensions with Sunni residents.

The Iraqi army, police and the militias, backed by coalition air strikes, have surrounded Fallujah since late last year, while the jihadists have been preventing residents from leaving for months.

Families who cannot flee should raise white flags to mark their location in the city, the military’s media unit said in a statement on state television, a tactic employed with some success in other recent offensives.

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5 dead as gunman attacks churchgoers in Russia

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At least five people were killed and another five were injured when a gunman attacked a crowd of people leaving a church on Sunday in Russia’s southern province of Dagestan, Russian news agencies reported.

The attack occurred in the village of Kizlyar in the Muslim-majority republic of Dagestan.

Russian news agencies said the attack occurred as churchgoers celebrated Maslenitsa, a Christian holiday marking the last day before Lent according to the eastern Orthodox calendar.

CCTV footage from the site of the deadly shooting shows a man armed with a rifle gunning down two women in broad daylight.

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A bearded man clad in a black vest and camouflage pants was seen crossing the street before opening fire on two female churchgoers as they left a service in Kizlyar in the Republic of Dagestan on Sunday afternoon. A woman walking several meters from the attacker was seen rushing away as the bloodshed unfolded.

The attacker was identified as a 22-year-old man local to the region, the TASS news agency said, citing the investigative committee.

He was shot and killed by security services who were on duty nearby, TASS said, adding that a hunting rifle, bullets and a knife were discovered on his person.

Initial reports suggested all five victims were women, TASS said, citing the local branch of the interior ministry.

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