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A lion in its cage looks at a dead lioness in a grave at Mosul's zoo, Iraq, February 2, 2017. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed

(reuters_tickers)

By Emily Wither

MOSUL (Reuters) - A bear paces around a filthy cage next to a starving lion, the only two animals left in Mosul's zoo. At the edge of their tiny enclosures lies a lioness dead from starvation.

Like much of the city, the once-peaceful animal park has been destroyed by months of fighting between Iraqi forces and Islamic State militants.

When the military advanced into Mosul, Nour Park, which had been home to a range of animals from monkeys to horses, was transformed into an Islamic State staging ground for attacks on Iraqi troops.

"When the battle intensified, it was impossible for the guard and animal handler to reach them," said the zoo owner, who gave his name only as Abu Omar.

Neighbors had been feeding the animals, but when the fighting became too fierce, they could not leave their homes. Some of the animals starved to death. Others escaped or were killed in the fighting.

Saif al-Bassef, a volunteer sent by the Kurdistan Organisation for Animal Rights, brought the first substantial food for a month. "It's shameful to watch the animals struggle, they need help. They are not connected to the war," he said.

People living around the park told Reuters they had been bringing their left-over food to the animals. But it was nowhere near enough in a city where human beings can barely survive, let alone zoo animals. 

There used to be four lions. When the first two died, the surviving lions ate their remains amid the chaos.

A shell hit one of the cages and the monkeys escaped, causing havoc for nearby residents.

"The monkeys were jumping on the houses, scaring the children and stealing the fruit. Ducks and other animals were running around, the whole neighborhood had to run around trying to catch them," said Faten Amar, who lives across the road.

Another resident showed Reuters his son's hand, red and scarred from a monkey scratch when he was attacked by one three weeks ago.  

The park, which also features colorful children's rides, sits in the eastern half of the city that has recently been retaken by Iraqi forces.

Groups of children jump around in the ruins of the playground, not far from an unexploded bomb and a disused freezer full of ordnance.

(Editing by Michael Georgy and Tom Heneghan)

Reuters