With 'far fewer' Yazidis stuck on Iraqi peak than thought, rescue less likely

US troops find 'far fewer' Yazidis stuck on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq than feared and those who remain are in better condition than thought

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 August, 2014, 9:35pm
UPDATED : Friday, 15 August, 2014, 1:21am

The United States said its troops found "far fewer" Yazidi refugees marooned on a northern Iraqi mountain than expected, making an evacuation mission less likely, after air strikes pummelled besieging Islamic militants.

The UN refugee agency has said tens of thousands of civilians, many members of the Yazidi religious minority, remain trapped on Mount Sinjar by jihadists from the so-called Islamic State (IS), which has overrun large swathes of Iraq and Syria in a lightning and brutal offensive.

But the Pentagon said on Wednesday that - based on a direct assessment by a small party of US troops - the plight of those on the mountain was better than feared, and an evacuation mission "is far less likely".

A US military official said the special forces soldiers had returned safely to base at Arbil, the capital of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region.

Two US officials said that roughly 4,500 people remained atop the mountain, and nearly half were herders who lived there before the siege and had no interest in being evacuated.

Pentagon press secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby said that the troops, which numbered fewer than 20, did not engage in any combat.

"The team has assessed that there are far fewer Yazidis on Mount Sinjar than previously feared, in part because of the success of humanitarian air drops, air strikes on ISIL [IS] targets, the efforts of the [Kurdish] peshmerga [fighters] and the ability of thousands of Yazidis to evacuate from the mountain each night over the last several days. "The Yazidis who remain are in better condition than previously believed and continue to have access to the food and water that we have dropped."

Iraqi helicopters and Kurdish troops have been trying to come to the aid of the Yazidi religious minority, and Washington and its allies have been studying ways to airlift them off Sinjar or open a humanitarian corridor. Thousands of people have poured across a border bridge into camps in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region after trekking through neighbouring Syria to find refuge, most with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

Some women carried exhausted children, weeping as they reached the relative safety of Iraqi Kurdistan.

But large numbers of people, including the most vulnerable, remain trapped on Mount Sinjar, said Mahmud Bakr, 45.

"My father Khalaf is 70 years old - he cannot make this journey," he said as he crossed back into Iraq.

UN minority rights expert Rita Izsak has warned the civilians face "a mass atrocity and potential genocide within days or hours".

For those who managed to escape the siege, the relief of reaching relative safety was tempered by the spartan conditions of the camps hurriedly erected by the Iraqi Kurdish authorities to accommodate them.

"We were besieged for 10 days in the mountain. The whole world is talking about us but we did not get any real help," said Khodr Hussein.

As the international outcry over the plight of the Yazidis mounted, Western governments pledged to step up help for those still trapped, and the United Nations declared a Level 3 emergency in Iraq, allowing it to speed up its response.

Britain has deployed SAS special forces in northern Iraq where thousands of civilians are trapped on a mountain by Sunni militant fighters, the
Daily Telegraph newspaper reported.

Citing Britain's trade envoy to Iraq, Emma Nicholson, the paper said that officers from the Special Air Service (SAS), the army's special forces regiment, were working with US troops to gather intelligence and had been in Iraq for about six weeks.