Many women among bodies found in mass grave in Syria

Yazidis slaughtered by Isis may be among victims in grave found by Syrian-Kurdish forces

Civilians evacuated from the Islamic State terror group’s  holdout of Baghouz wait at a screening area held by the US-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor, on Wednesday. Photograph:  Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images

Civilians evacuated from the Islamic State terror group’s holdout of Baghouz wait at a screening area held by the US-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor, on Wednesday. Photograph: Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images

 

A mass grave containing the bodies of dozens of people killed by the Islamic State terror group, including many women, has been found in territory recently seized by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, an SDF official said on Thursday.

The SDF is poised to wipe out the last vestige of Islamic State’s territorial rule at the besieged village of Baghouz near the Iraqi border. But the operation has been held up as the SDF seeks to evacuate thousands of civilians.

“We will announce the complete victory over Daesh in a week,” SDF commander-in-chief Mazloum Kobani said in a video released by the SDF on Thursday, speaking during a meeting with a group of SDF fighters freed from Islamic State captivity. The militant group is also known as Isis, or Daesh.

It was not immediately clear when the video was filmed.

The SDF announced on Thursday it had freed 24 of its fighters from the jihadist group.

The Islamic State enclave at Baghouz, a tiny area on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River, is the last populated territory held by the jihadists, who have been steadily driven by an array of enemies from swathes of land they once held.

Though the fall of Baghouz will mark a milestone in the campaign against Islamic State, the group is still seen as a security threat, using guerrilla tactics and still holding some territory in a remote area west of the Euphrates River.

The mass grave was found around one week ago in an area of Baghouz already seized from Islanic State and is still being excavated, SDF commander Adnan Afrin said. It was not clear when the people had been killed.

The SDF was seeking to confirm whether the bodies, most of them decapitated, were those of Yazidi sect members enslaved by Islanic State, he said, adding: “They were slaughtered.”

Thousands of members of the minority Yazidi sect from Iraq were forced into sexual slavery by Islamic State when they surged across the border in 2014 and seized swathes of territory.

More than 3,000 other Yazidis were killed in an onslaught the United Nations later described as genocidal, which prompted the first US air strikes against Islamic State. Thousands more fled on foot and many remain displaced more than four years later.

Some 40,000 people have crossed from the jihadists’ diminishing territory in the last three months as the U.S.-backed SDF sought to finish off the group. The numbers of people, who are still pouring out of Baghouz, have surpassed initial estimates.

Civilians

Mr Afrin said many of the people coming out of Baghouz had been underground in caves and tunnels. The SDF has said it wants to evacuate civilians inside Baghouz before storming it or forcing the surrender of the remaining jihadists, who the SDF has said are mostly foreigners.

The US-led coalition said Baghouz had been “more crowded with both civilians and fighters than expected”.

“The overflow during the lull in battle has been difficult for the SDF and they have responded to everything well ...,” said Col Sean Ryan, the coalition spokesman.

Mr Afrin said the 24 fighters who were announced freed on Thursday were mostly captured by Islamic State during the Deir al-Zor campaign and were rescued by its special forces based on intelligence.

The SDF has said several hundred jihadists are believed to be holed up in Baghouz, a cluster of hamlets surrounded by farmland on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River.

Mr Afrin said there had been no negotiations with Islamic State but “in the future it is possible they will request negotiations to surrender”. He said Islamic State was still holding hostages inside Baghouz, both civilians and SDF fighters. – Reuters