An Islamic State group offensive that began on Saturday around Iraq’s Sinjar province, west of Mosul, has seen Kurdish military forces suffer a serious military setback and triggered a humanitarian crisis in the province.
In the early hours of Sunday morning, fighters from the Islamic State attacked the predominantly Yazidi town of Sinjar, quickly forcing Kurdish Peshmerga units to withdraw.
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|Al Jazeera’s Mohammed Vall reports|
The same offensive saw the town of Zumar and at least one oilfield also fall into Islamic State hands the previous day.
As Sinjar fell, Yazidi residents, who make up over three-quarters of the population, fled in huge numbers, fearing violent persecution by Islamic State.
Yazidism is an ancient but relatively small religion which the Islamic State group views as heretic, calling Yazidis devil worshippers.
Most Yazidis chose to flee the spiritually important town of Sinjar rather than wait to see how they would be treated by fighters who have previously shown themselves to be brutally intolerant of religious minorities .
Families headed to the Sinjar mountains, many on foot, where they remain without water, food or shelter. One resident of Sinjar, who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of falling into the hands of Islamic State fighters, contacted Al Jazeera by phone from the mountain where he has fled to with his wife and children.
old people here, children. [Islamic State] is about seven kilometres away and they’re saying if we don’t return to the town and convert to Islam they will come up and start killing people.”]
“We need help,” he said, sounding clearly distressed. “There’s no food, no water, no Peshmerga. If nobody comes to help us, in two days everybody’s going to be dead. There [are] old people here, children. [Islamic State] is about seven kilometres away and they’re saying if we don’t return to the town and convert to Islam they will come up and start killing people. They were killing our women and children.”
The United Nations Special Representative for Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov, warned that ” a humanitarian tragedy is unfolding in Sinjar “.
Estimates vary as to how many people have been displaced from Sinjar and the surrounding area, but it is thought to be up to 200,000. The UN has described the humanitarian situation in the province as “dire”, especially for those trapped on Sinjar mountain who, at the time this was written, were surrounded by Islamic State fighters.
While Sinjar lies within the area of land that was previously claimed by both Baghdad and Erbil, it has been under Kurdish control for many years and represents the first loss of traditionally Kurdish territory to the Islamic State group.
Some Kurdish media outlets have reported that a Peshmerga counter-offensive aimed at relieving those trapped and retaking the town has already begun, but it has not been possible to confirm these reports.