Gunmen occupied a university in Iraq’s western province of Anbar on Saturday, taking hundreds of students and their professors hostage on campus, security sources said.
After fighting their way past guards overnight, the gunmen broke into Anbar University in the provincial capital Ramadi, parts of which have been held by anti-government tribal groups and insurgents since the start of the year.
The attack on the university is the third brazen offensive in as many days by militants who have regained ground and momentum in Iraq over the past year and this week overran districts in two other cities.
Security forces surrounded the university in Ramadi on Saturday and exchanged fire with the militants, who had planted bombs behind them and were patrolling the rooftops with sniper rifles.
Sources in Ramadi hospital said they had received the bodies of two people, one of them a student and the other a policeman.
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A professor trapped inside the physics department said some staff who live outside Ramadi had been spending the night at the university because it was the exam period.
“We heard intense gunfire at about 4 am. We thought it was the security forces coming to protect us but were surprised to see they were gunmen,” he told Reuters via telephone. “They forced us to go inside the rooms and now we cannot leave”.
He was later able to escape along with 15 colleagues and pupils. “I brought some of my students’ exam papers in a nylon bag and, wearing my tie and suit, jumped the fence and am outside now,” he said.
The identity of the assailants was not clear, but Ramadi is one of two cities in Anbar that were overrun at the start of the year by tribal and Sunni insurgents, including the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Security forces control central Ramadi, where the city council and other government offices are located, but the suburbs and outlying areas have shifted back and forth between of hit and run attacks by militants.
Almost 480,000 people have been forced to leave their homes in Anbar over the past six months, according to the United Nations, in what is Iraq’s largest displacement since the sectarian bloodletting that climaxed in 2006-07.
Violence is still well below those levels, but insurgents have been regaining ground and momentum over the past year, making 2013 Iraq’s deadliest year since security began to improve.
Nearly 800 people were killed across the country in May alone – the highest monthly toll this year so far.
On Thursday, militants moved into the city of Samarra in the adjacent province of Salahuddin and briefly occupied a university there as well as two mosques, raising ISIL’s black banner until being forced to retreat under airstrikes.
The following day, insurgents fought Iraqi security forces in the northern city of Mosul.
A source at Mosul morgue said the bodies of 70 people had been brought in on Saturday, adding there were still corpses on the streets but they could not be recovered yet some districts of the city remained under militant control.