February 28, 2019 / 11:16 AM / 6 months ago

Mass grave found in last Islamic State bastion - SDF

DEIR AL-ZOR PROVINCE, Syria (Reuters) - A mass grave containing the bodies of dozens of people who may be Yazidis enslaved by Islamic State has been found in territory recently seized by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an SDF official said on Thursday.

FILE PHOTO: A fighter from Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) checks a man near the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria February 22, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said/File Photo

Many of the bodies found in the Baghouz area were those of women.

“They were slaughtered,” SDF commander Adnan Afrin said. Most had been decapitated, he added.

The SDF was still trying to confirm if the bodies belonged to members of the Yazidi sect.

Thousands of members of the minority sect from Iraq were forced into sexual slavery by the jihadists 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 U.S. air strikes against Islamic State. Thousands more fled on foot and many of them remain displaced more than four years later.

The SDF, the main Kurdish led-partner of the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State in Syria, has been trying to evacuate thousands of civilians in Baghouz before storming it or forcing the surrender of the remaining jihadists, who the SDF has said are mostly foreigners.

It said earlier on Thursday that it had freed 24 of its fighters held by Islamic State in Baghouz but gave no details about how they were recovered.

Thousands of people of many nationalities have streamed out of the final shred of land in recent weeks, an exodus of both its supporters and victims, surpassing initial estimates and delaying an end to the battle.

Residents say hundreds of Arab civilians have been killed in U.S.-led coalition air raids since the campaign began several months ago with many of their homes in villages and towns east of the Euphrates River levelled to the ground.

The United Nations on Thursday expressed concern about the plight of thousands whom residents say are tribal Arabs in a camp in al Hol in northeastern Hasaka province. Many of those fleeing, nearly all of them women and children, were being taken into custody by the SDF.

Those fleeing described a desperate situation for civilians, with widespread reports of civilians killed and injured, destruction of civilian infrastructure, and shortages of food, a U.N statement issued in Damascus said.

The United Nations said more than 78 deaths had been reported, two-thirds of them children under one-year-old who lost their lives either en route or shortly after arriving at the SDF-run camp.

Reporting by Ellen Francis; Additional reporting by Tom Miles in Geneva, Writing by Stephen Kalin/Tom Perry/Suleiman Khalidi; Editing by Peter Graff and Hugh Lawson

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