Thousands of civilians have fled the town of Hit after Iraqi forces entered the town in an attempt to retake it from Isis (Daesh) fighters. Iraq's elite counterterrorism forces said they are clearing Isis militants from Hit's northern neighbourhoods as they push towards the centre. Progress has been slow as Iraqi forces had to deal with hundreds of roadside bombs laid by Isis fighters along the main roads leading in and out of Hit, forcing convoys to veer off into the surrounding desert terrain. Even there, the forces' advance was repeatedly brought to a standstill by booby-trapped explosives.

Hit — which lies along the Euphrates river valley in Iraq's vast Anbar province — is strategically important as it sits along an Isis supply line that links the extremist militants in Iraq to those in Syria.

Iraq Anbar
A boy drives a tricycle carrying his family away from the fighting in the town of HitMoadh al-Dulaimi/AFP
Iraq Anbar
Civilians who fled the fighting in Hit are transported on an Iraqi armoured vehicleReuters
Iraq Anbar
Residents of the town of Hit flee the fightingReuters
Iraq Anbar
A boy carrying a national flag is evacuated along with hundreds of other residents of HitMoadh al-Dulaimi/AFP
Iraq Anbar
People from the town of Hit in Iraq's Anbar province, are evacuated by government forcesMoadh al-Dulaimi/AFP
Iraq Anbar
An elderly Iraqi woman carries a baby as they are evacuated from the town of HitMoadh al-Dulaimi/AFP
Iraq Anbar
Members of the Iraqi government forces carry a disabled boy as they evacuate hundreds of Iraqis from the town of HitMoadh al-Dulaimi/AFP

Residents fled as Iraqi troops advanced under cover of heavy air strikes and artillery fire. Families, many with small children and elderly relatives, said they had walked for hours through desert littered with roadside bombs to escape the violence. Iraqi troops, who had spent hours clearing the territory before their assault, instructed families not to stray from the tyre marks on the road out of town to avoid explosives. Piles of rocks and scrap metal marked unexploded bombs along the route.

Iraq's counterterrorism forces estimate more than 20,000 civilians remain trapped inside Hit. The large number of people in such a small area is making it difficult to quickly clear territory with air strikes.

The Hit offensive comes after a string of territorial victories for Iraqi forces over the past six months. Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, was declared fully "liberated" by Iraqi and coalition officials in February. Coalition officials estimate Isis has lost more than 40% of the territory it held in Iraq after the summer of 2014.

Iraq Anbar
Iraq Anbar
8 March 2016: Iraqi security forces vehicles move toward the town of HitReuters
Iraq Anbar
10 March 2016: Civilians flash the sign for victory after government forces retook the town of Zankura, northwest of RamadiMoadh al-Dulaimi/AFP
Iraq Anbar
18 March 2016: Iraqi government forces wave the national flag from their vehicles in the village of Mohammadi, a few miles north of HitMoadh al-Dulaimi/AFP
Iraq Anbar
29 March 2016: Boys wave their national flag in a queue for security checks as some 250 families return to their home towns in the area of Husaybah and Juwaybah in Anbar province after Iraqi forces scored important gains against Islamic StateMoadh al-Dulaimi/AFP
Iraq Anbar
2 April 2016: A member of the Iraqi security forces stands next to the wreckage of a vehicle belonging to Islamic State militants in the town of HitReuters
Iraq Anbar
2 April 2016: Iraqi security forces stand with an Islamic State flag which they pulled down in the town of Hit in Anbar provinceReuters
Iraq Anbar
2 April 2016: Iraqi Counter Terrorism Forces drive armoured vehicles after they retook the village of Al-Mamoura, near Hit, from Islamic StateMoadh al-Dulaimi/AFP

Iraqi and coalition officials said that retaking Hit will be a key step before an eventual push on Mosul, the largest Iraqi city held by Isis.