Iraqi Kurdish fighters drive Islamic State out of villages near Kirkuk in fresh advance

The Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq says it has driven the Islamic State group out of more than 140 sq. kilometers (54 sq. miles) of territory near the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and cleared part of a major highway.

A statement from the Kurdistan Region Security Council on Wednesday said Kurdish peshmerga fighters backed by U.S.-led airstrikes pushed the militants beyond Ghara Heights and Mount Batiwa, south of Kirkuk, and secured a stretch of a highway which connects it to the central city of Samarra.

The IS group swept across northern Iraq in the summer of 2014 and currently holds roughly a third of Iraq and neighboring Syria. The Kurdish government says some militants were seen fleeing toward the contested town of Hawijah.