Sunday 19 November 2017

Mass grave of Isil victims found near Mosul as Iraqi forces advance into west of city

Rapid Response forces members surround an injured boy as they treat him during a battle with Isil militants south west of Mosul. Photo: Zohra Bensemra/Reuters
Rapid Response forces members surround an injured boy as they treat him during a battle with Isil militants south west of Mosul. Photo: Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

Florian Neuhof, Stephen Kalin and Isabel Coles

The Khasfa sinkhole was once an inconspicuous feature in the barren desert just off the Baghdad-Mosul highway. Now, this natural depression 8km outside Mosul is believed to be the biggest mass grave in Iraq.

Isil killed and dumped the bodies of thousands of security personnel here after it captured the city in 2014, according to local villagers, Iraqi police and human rights organisations.

Most victims were shot and thrown into the pit, witnesses said, while others perished in vehicles driven over the edge of the pit.

"Daesh [Isil] would drive the victims to Khasfa in convoys of minibuses, trucks and pick-ups. The men had their hands bound and their eyes blindfolded.

"They were taken to the sinkhole and shot in the back of the head," Mahmoud, a 40-year-old from the nearby village of Sananik who declined to give his full name for security reasons, said. The dead would either tumble into the hole after being shot or be tossed in by their masked killers, he said.

The revelations came as US-backed Iraqi forces pushed into western Mosul yesterday after retaking the city's airport from Isil, as aid agencies warned the most dangerous phase of the offensive was about to begin for hundreds of thousands of civilians.

Troops disarmed booby traps planted by retreating militant fighters in the airport, which the army plans to use as a base from which to drive Isil from Mosul's western districts and deal a decisive blow to the group.

As they did, Iraqi fighter jets dropped bombs on Isil positions inside Syria. It was the first time the Iraqi government publicly acknowledged striking militant targets inside Syria.

The new offensive comes after government forces and their allies finished clearing Isil from eastern Mosul last month, confining the insurgents to the western sector of the city, which is bisected by the Tigris river.

Commanders expect the battle in western Mosul to be more difficult, in part because tanks and armoured vehicles cannot pass through the narrow alleyways that crisscross ancient districts there. The International Rescue Committee said the most dangerous phase of the battle was about to begin for the 750,000 civilians believed to be trapped inside Mosul.

"There is a real danger that the battle will be raging around them for weeks and possibly months to come," acting country director Jason Kajer said.

The UN has warned up to 400,000 civilians could be displaced by the offensive amid food and fuel shortages.

Iraqi forces launched attacks on several fronts. Counter-terrorism forces clashed with Isil inside the southwestern district of al-Mamoun and took full control of the Ghozlani military base yesterday, Major General Sami al-Aridi, a senior commander, said.

Separately, federal police and an elite Interior Ministry unit known as Rapid Response advanced into the Hawi al-Josaq and al-Danadan districts after breaching a berm and a trench set up by Isil north of the airport, a spokesman said.


Early raids in the city's west have so far been restricted to thinly-populated areas. The government encouraged civilians to stay in their homes, but some were caught in the crossfire.

Jamal Abdelnasser (14) was shot in the leg by Isil when the militants stormed his home to take up sniper positions. After crossing the frontline, soldiers unwrapped the blood-soaked bandages around his leg and poured iodine on the bullet wound.

In another incident, a Reuters correspondent saw a dozen civilians fleeing towards Iraqi security forces from the outskirts of Mamoun.

Defeat in Mosul would likely deal a hammer blow to Isil's self-styled caliphate in areas it seized in 2014. But the group still controls swathes of territory in neighbouring Syria and patches in northern and western Iraq from where it could fight a guerrilla-style insurgency in Iraq, and plot attacks on the West. (© Daily Telegraph London)

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