Friday 19 January 2018

Mass grave uncovered in Mosul as Iraqi forces advance into city

Investigators make the horrific discovery as troops and Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers push Isil back

An Iraqi federal police officer walks towards a mass grave in Hamam al-Alil, Iraq. The Iraqi military says it has found some 100 decapitated bodies in a mass grave south of the Islamic State-held city of Mosul. Photo: AP
An Iraqi federal police officer walks towards a mass grave in Hamam al-Alil, Iraq. The Iraqi military says it has found some 100 decapitated bodies in a mass grave south of the Islamic State-held city of Mosul. Photo: AP

Rebecca Onedine in Beirut

Iraqi investigators were probing a mass grave yesterday that was discovered by troops advancing farther into Isil territory near the city of Mosul, where soldiers have captured a sliver of land but later halted their advance.

The chilling find was the latest instance of mass graves being uncovered on ground wrested from Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) militants. In Iraq and Syria so far, the group has killed thousands of people in extra- judicial killings, the graves a dark testimony to its brutality.

Footage from the site shows bones and decomposed bodies among scraps of clothing and plastic bags dug out of the ground by a bulldozer after Iraqi troops noticed the strong smell while advancing into the town of Hamam al-Alil on Monday.

"Investigators flew in and are on their way to the grave to conduct examinations and determine the cause of death," said Iraqi cabinet official Haider Majeed, in charge of mass grave investigations.

The first officials at the site said the grave, behind an earthen embankment near an agricultural college, probably holds about 100 bodies, many of them decapitated. The town lies some 30km from Mosul.

It was unclear who the victims were, but a soldier at the site pulled a child's stuffed animal from the scraps of clothing and rotting flesh, swarming with flies.

Isil militants have carried out a series of massacres since seizing large swathes of southern and central Iraq in the summer of 2014, often documenting them with photos and videos circulated online.

In Geneva, the UN human rights office said it was investigating whether the discovery at Hamam al-Alil was connected to reports about the alleged killing of police officers in the same area.

"We had reports that 50 former Iraqi police officers had been killed in a building outside Mosul city," spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said. "This building was actually the same agricultural facility, agricultural college, that has been cited right now as the site of these mass graves."

The campaign to drive Isil fighters from Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city and the extremists' last major urban stronghold in the country, began on October 17.

Iraqi troops and the Kurdish Peshmerga forces are now converging on Mosul, although the deepest advance into an eastern sliver of the city has stalled after militants counter-attacked advancing special forces from within built-up, populated areas.

To the northeast, some 12km from the city, the Peshmerga forces continued their push on the town of Bashiqa, believed to be largely deserted except for dozens of Isil fighters.

Mortar fire, automatic weapons and explosions rang out through the morning, as a thick plume of smoke hung over parts of the city, obscuring the view of aircraft.

The United Nations said over 34,000 people had been displaced from Mosul, with about three-quarters settled in camps and the rest in host communities.

In a report issued overnight, the UN human rights office said the organisation and its humanitarian partners have distributed food, water and medicine to more than 41,000 displaced people and vulnerable residents fleeing the fighting.

Since the battle for Mosul reached the city itself on November 4, some 11,000 people have fled eastwards from the city, while some electricity and water supplies have been cut in eastern neighbourhoods.

"Parts of the resident population could face shortages of food and water," OCHA said, also highlighting an urgent need for trauma care due to a lack of facilities.

Meanwhile, a coalition of mainly Shi'ite Iraqi militias advancing on the Isil-held town of Tal Afar plans to seize a nearby military air base from the jihadists, the first time the Iran-backed forces have targeted such a base, militia officials said.

The Hashid Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) paramilitary forces are deployed in the arid region west of Mosul.

The town of Tal Afar, and its air base, are located on the highway west of Mosul. Capturing them would help cut Isil supply lines between Mosul and its Syrian territories, and offer a base for the Hashid's stated plan ultimately to take its battle with Islamic State into Syria.

But the advance by the mainly Shi'ite force towards Tal Afar, which had a mixed population of mainly Shi'ite and Sunni Turkmen before Isil captured it in 2014, has raised fears of sectarian strife and alarmed neighbouring Turkey.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey was reinforcing its troops on the border with Iraq and would respond if the Shi'ite militias "cause terror" in Tal Afar.

Capturing an air base would point to the growing muscle of Hashid forces, which officially report to the Shi'ite-led government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi but are also backed by Tehran, often flying the banners of Iran's Supreme Leader.

Irish Independent

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