IRBIL, IRAQ – Airstrikes pounded the area around Iraq’s largest dam on Saturday in an effort to drive out militants who captured it earlier this month, as reports emerged of the massacre of some 80 members of the Yazidi religious minority by Islamic extremists.
Residents living near the Mosul Dam told The Associated Press that the area was being targeted by airstrikes, but it was not immediately clear whether the attacks were being carried out by Iraq’s air force or the U.S., which last week launched an air campaign aimed at halting the advance of the Islamic State group across the country’s north.
The extremist group seized the dam on the Tigris River on Thursday. Residents near the dam 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.
A Yazidi lawmaker and a Kurdish security official meanwhile said Islamic State fighters massacred scores of Yazidi men Friday afternoon after seizing the village of Kocho. Both said they based their information on the accounts of survivors and warned that the minority group remains in danger despite U.S. aid drops and airstrikes launched to protect them.
Islamic State fighters besieged the village for several days and gave its Yazidi residents a deadline to convert to Islam, Yazidi lawmaker Mahma Khalil said Saturday.
“When the residents refused to do this, 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 the nearby city of Tal Afar, which is controlled by the Islamic State group.
Their accounts could not immediately be confirmed. Areas held by the extremist group are not accessible to reporters.
Tens of thousands of Yazidis fled when the Islamic State group earlier this month captured the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar, near the Syrian border. The Yazidis practice an ancient religion that the Sunni Muslim radicals consider heretical.
The plight of the Yazidis, tens of thousands of whom were stranded on a desert mountaintop for days, encircled by the Islamic extremists, prompted the U.S. to launch aid lifts as well as airstrikes to help Kurdish fighters get them to safety.
Most of the Yazidis were eventually able to escape to Iraq’s largely autonomous Kurdish region. Some 1.5 million people have been displaced by fighting since the Islamic State group’s rapid advance across northern and western Iraq 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, which has carved out a self-styled Islamic state in large parts of Iraq and neighboring Syria.
On Saturday, Britain’s Ministry of Defense said it deployed a U.S.-made spy plane over northern Iraq to monitor the humanitarian crisis and movements of Islamic State militants. It said the converted Boeing KC-135 tanker, called a Rivet Joint, would 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 ($32.2 million) in humanitarian aid to Iraq.
“The first German air force planes are flying to Irbil at this moment to deliver humanitarian aid,” Steinmeier said in a joint press conference with Iraq’s acting Foreign Minister Hussein Shahristani. “In the current situation where minorities, especially in northern Iraq, are expelled and murdered, where children are orphaned and women are enslaved, humanitarian aid is extremely important.”
Two British planes also landed Saturday in the Kurdish regional capital Irbil carrying humanitarian supplies.
Khalil, the Yazidi lawmaker, said the U.S. must do more to protect those fleeing the Islamic State group. “We have been calling on the U.S. administration and Iraqi government to intervene and help the innocent people, but it seems that nobody is listening,” Khalil said.