By Euan McKirdy, CNN
(CNN)Thousands of Kurdish Peshmerga troops are involved in an offensive to regain formerly Kurdish villages near the ISIS-held town of Mosul, Kurdish officials say.
The Peshmerga-led ground offensive, backed by international coalition air support, was launched early Sunday to retake several villages near Khazir, east of Mosul.
The operation includes approximately 5,500 Peshmerga fighters.
The move comes ahead of a joint offensive by Kurdish forces and Iraqi troops to retake Mosul, Kurdish media says.
Kurdish media outlet Rudaw reported that the Peshmerga troops, accompanied by Zeravani Special Forces — a Kurdish paramilitary outfit — picked their way across ISIS-held territory, retaking abandoned villages it says were once populated by Kurds.
“I am very happy to help liberate these villages today, because they are Kurds like us,” First Lt. Hemin Rashid, a Zeravani Peshmerga fighter from Halabja told the media outlet.
“After we liberate the village they can return and we will guard them too,” he said.
Mortar fire and roadside bombs slowed the advance, Rudaw said.
“ISIS is seeing our forces but we cannot see them because they hide inside civilian homes and in tunnels,” Zeravani spokesman Dilshad Mawlood said.
Focus on Mosul
Mawlood told Rudaw that, “other than taking the villages, the other goal is to push the ISIS threat further from the town of Khabat, and the third goal is to get closer to the final goal that is Mosul.”
The operation to liberate Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city and an ISIS stronghold in the country, has been months in the making and involves coordination between Iraq’s military, Kurdish forces and the international coalition.
“This is one of the many shaping operations expected to increase pressure on ISIL in and around Mosul in preparation for an eventual assault on the city,” a statement from the Kurdistan Region Security Council (KRSC) announcing the operation read, using another acronym for the Sunni terror group.
Hemin Hawrami, head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) Foreign Relations Office, tweeted that the “very important” operation was nearing completion.
Hemin Hawrami @heminhawrami
Peshemrga operation started to liberate strategic villages in Khazr front this morning.Very important progress 80% mission accomplished.
1:50 PM – 29 May 2016
Concerted push towards ISIS strongholds
The Mosul front is the latest to be opened up in an all-out push on key cities held by ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Four hundred miles to the south of the Kurdish offensive, hundreds of residents, mostly women and children, fled Falluja Friday as Iraqi soldiers began an attempt to drive ISIS from the city, the Iraqi military said.
Security forces evacuated about 760 people who escaped from the eastern and southeastern regions of Falluja, the military said.
The United Nations’ refugee agency warned that tens of thousands of people are still caught in the city as the bombardment by the Iraqi military has intensified, putting the estimated 50,000 remaining residents at extreme risk.
Pro-government fighters said they had found tunnels constructed and used by ISIS on the outskirts of the city.
Forces close in on Raqqa
Last week, across the border in neighboring Syria, a U.S.-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab forces pushed into territory north of ISIS’ de facto capital in Raqqa.
Activist Sarmad al-Jilane, of the monitoring group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, confirmed reports that ISIS has let some residents of its so-called capital flee to the surrounding countryside or to the city of Deir Ezzor as Kurdish and Arab forces pushed forward.
Additionally, the Pentagon has pushed back on assertions that U.S. special operations forces were fighting ISIS fighters on the front lines alongside the Syrian forces after Agence France-Presse published photos Thursday that it said are of U.S. special operations forces operating near the front lines north of Raqqa., ISIS’s self-declared capital.
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CNN’s Merieme Arif contributed to this report.