15 Nov 2015

Mass grave found near Sinjar, Iraq

1:34 pm on 15 November 2015

A mass grave believed to contain the remains of more than 70 members of Iraq's Yazidi minority has been discovered east of Sinjar after Kurdish Peshmerga forces reclaimed the town from Islamic State extremists.

Members of the Yazidi community search for missing relatives in the remains of people killed by IS a day after Kurdish forces discovered a mass grave near the Iraqi village of Sinuni, in the northwestern Sinjar area.

Members of the Yazidi community in February this year search for clues for missing relatives. Photo: AFP

The retaking of Sinjar was helped by intensive air strikes from the American-led coalition.

The mayor of Sinjar and local Yazidis said they believed the bodies were those of older women the militants separated during their onslaught. They say women aged 40 to 80 were buried there last year after IS seized Sinjar.

Many younger women were raped and enslaved rather than killed - seen by IS as "the plunder of war".

Correspondents said the discovery of the grave would add weight to the United Nations belief that IS may have attempted genocide against the Yazidis. The risk of genocide was a key factor in the United States decision to launch air strikes in Iraq.

Hussein Derbo, the head of a Kurdish Peshmerga battalion made up of 440 Yazidis, told Reuters: "It is our land and our honour. They [IS] stole our dignity. We want to get it back."

Sinjar, which fell to IS in August last year, is strategically positioned in north-west Iraq near the border with Syria. Most of its inhabitants were from the minority Yazidi community, which suffered heavily under the IS militants.

Thousands of Yazidis were either killed or abducted, but many more became trapped on nearby Mount Sinjar without food or water for days until they were rescued by Syrian Kurdish forces. Photos of those trapped shocked the world.

Iraqi Kurdish regional President Massoud Barzani claimed the latest victory, which could provide critical momentum in efforts to capture the western provincial capital Ramadi and Mosul in the north, an IS bastion.

"The liberation of Sinjar will have a big impact on liberating Mosul," Mr Barzani, who personally oversaw the offensive, said atop Mount Sinjar, overlooking the town.

Jihadi John

Jihadi John Photo: AFP / FILE

The recapture of Sinjar from IS came as evidence grew that the group had suffered another setback with the probable death in an air strike in northern Syria of Jihadi John, a Briton who had appeared in videos showing the beheadings of American and British hostages.

In the Sinjar area itself, the operation severed vital supply routes used by IS to move fighters, weapons and oil and other illicit commodities that provide funding for its self-proclaimed caliphate.

Civilians appeared to have fled the town before the operation began. But it was still not clear if most IS militants had carried out a tactical withdrawal.

Peshmerga forces and fighters affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), both of which include Yazidis, entered Sinjar on Friday (local time) after cutting it off from east and west.

Iraqi Yazidi refugees rest inside a tent at the Newroz camp in Hasaka province, north eastern Syria.

Iraqi Yazidi refugees rest inside a tent at the Newroz camp in Hasaka province, north eastern Syria. Photo: AFP

The Kurdistan council said peshmerga forces had entered Sinjar "from all directions" to begin clearing remaining insurgents. Hundreds of peshmerga fighters were seen walking into the town and along a main road without facing immediate resistance.

Kurdish commanders expressed concerns that some insurgents were hiding and would blow themselves up as the peshmerga advanced.

The number of IS fighters in the town had risen to nearly 600 in the run-up to the offensive, but only a handful were left in Sinjar on Friday, said Brigadier General Seme Mala Mohammed of the peshmerga.

Islamic State, made up of Iraqis, other Arabs and foreign fighters, poses the biggest security threat to OPEC oil producer Iraq since a US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Campaigns to contain IS have moved slowly in Iraq, where sectarian divisions and corruption have hindered military progress.

Iraqi families from the Yazidi community cross the Iraqi-Syrian border.

Iraqi families from the Yazidi community cross the Iraqi-Syrian border. Photo: AFP

-Reuters, BBC