WATCH ABOVE: Airstrikes pounded the area around Iraq’s largest dam on Saturday, as reports emerged of the massacre of some 80 members of the Yazidi religious minority by Islamic extremists. Antony Robart reports.
IRBIL, Iraq – Islamic extremists shot scores of Yazidi men to death in Iraq, lining them up in small groups and opening fire with assault rifles before abducting their wives and children, according to an eyewitness, government officials and people who live in the area.
A Yazidi lawmaker on Saturday cited the mass killing in Kocho as evidence that his people are still at risk after a week of U.S. and Iraqi airstrikes on the militants.
Meanwhile, warplanes targeted insurgents around a large dam that was captured by the Islamic State extremist group earlier this month, nearby residents said.
In a statement, U.S. Central Command said the airstrikes Saturday were launched under the authority to support humanitarian efforts in Iraq, as well as to protect U.S. personnel and facilities.
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Central Command says the nine airstrikes conducted so far had destroyed or damaged four armoured personnel carriers, seven armed vehicles, two Humvees and an armoured vehicle.
The U.S. began airstrikes against the Islamic State extremist group a week ago, in part to prevent the massacre of tens of thousands of Yazidis in northern Iraq. They fled the militants by scrambling up a barren mountain, where they got stranded. Most were eventually able to escape with help from Kurdish fighters.
Islamic State fighters had surrounded the nearby village 12 days ago and demanded that its Yazidi residents convert or die. On Friday afternoon, they moved in.
The militants told people to gather in a school, promising they would be allowed to leave Kocho after their details were recorded, said the eyewitness and the brother of the Kocho mayor, Nayef Jassem, who said he obtained his details from another witness.
The militants separated the men from the women and children under 12 years old. They took men and male teens away in groups of a few dozen each and shot them on the edge of the village, according to a wounded man who escaped by feigning death.
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The fighters then walked among the bodies, using pistols to finish off anyone who appeared to still be alive, the 42-year-old man told The Associated Press by phone from an area where he was hiding. He spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing for his safety.
“They thought we were dead, and when they went away, we ran away. We hid in a valley until sundown, and then we fled to the mountains,” he said.
A Yazidi lawmaker, a Kurdish security official and an Iraqi official from the nearby city of Sinjar gave similar accounts, saying Islamic State fighters had massacred many Yazidi men Friday after seizing Kocho.
All of them said they based their information on the accounts of survivors. Their accounts matched those of two other Yazidi men, Qassim Hussein and Nayef Jassem, who said they spoke to other survivors.
It was not clear precisely how many men were killed. Iraqi and Kurdish officials said at least 80 men were shot. Yazidi residents said they believed the number was higher, because there were at least 175 families in Kocho, and few were able to escape before the militants surrounded their hamlet.
Jassem said he was in touch with two wounded men, including a cousin, who fled the village. They called Jassem from the phone of a sympathetic shepherd and described what happened. On Saturday morning, Jassem’s cousin called again, pleading for help.
“I can’t walk, and we will die,” Jassem said his cousin told him, his voice breaking. The 55-year-old said he called Yazidi rebels in the mountains, pleading with them to try to save the men. “They need first aid. Send them a donkey they can sit on, something to carry them.” But Jassem said his cousin was a six-hour walk from the rebels and would die before help came. By evening, he lost contact with his relative.
The Yazidis are a centuries-old religious minority viewed as apostates by the Islamic State, which has claimed mass killings of its opponents in Syria and Iraq, often posting grisly photos online.
Yazidi lawmaker Mahma Khalil said the Yazidis in Kocho were given the choice to abandon their religion for that of the fighters. When they refused, “the massacre took place,” he said.
Halgurd Hekmat, a spokesman for Kurdish security forces, said the militants took the women and children of Kocho to a nearby city.
Elsewhere in northern Iraq, residents living near the Mosul Dam told the AP that the area was being targeted by airstrikes.
The extremist group seized the dam on the Tigris River on Aug. 7. Residents living near the dam, which is Iraq’s largest, say the airstrikes killed militants, but that could not immediately be confirmed. The residents spoke on condition of anonymity out of fears for their safety.
Tens of thousands of Yazidis fled earlier this month when the Islamic State group captured the town of Sinjar, near the Syrian border.
The plight of the Yazidis motivated U.S. and Iraqi forces to launch aid drops. It also contributed to the U.S. decision to launch airstrikes against the militants, who were advancing on the Kurdish regional capital Irbil.
But the Islamic State group remains in control of vast swaths of northeastern Syria and northern and western Iraq, and the scale of the humanitarian crisis prompted the U.N. to declare its highest level of emergency earlier this week.
Some 1.5 million people have been displaced by fighting since the Islamic State’s rapid advance began in June.
The decision to launch airstrikes marked the first direct U.S. military intervention in Iraq since the last troops withdrew in 2011 and reflected growing international concern about the extremist group.
Khalil, the Yazidi lawmaker, said the U.S. must do more to protect those fleeing the Islamic State fighters.
“We have been calling on the U.S. administration and Iraqi government to intervene and help the innocent people,” Khalil said. “But it seems that nobody is listening.”
The United States was not alone in its efforts to ease the dangers in the region.
On Saturday, Britain’s Ministry of Defence said it deployed a U.S.-made spy plane over northern Iraq to monitor the humanitarian crisis and movements of the militants. The converted Boeing KC-135 tanker, called a Rivet Joint, was to monitor mobile phone calls and other communication.
Germany’s Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was in Baghdad on Saturday, where he announced his government would provide more than 24 million euros ($32.2 million) in humanitarian aid to Iraq.
Also Saturday, two British planes landed in the Kurdish regional capital of Irbil carrying humanitarian supplies.
Yacoub reported from Baghdad. Associated Press writers Vivian Salama in Baghdad, Frank Jordans in Berlin and Shawn Pogatchnik in Dublin contributed to this report.