Ari Jalal / Reuters

Iraq confirms IS killed 500 Yazidis

Thousands more remain trapped, official says; US airstrikes, aid drops continue

Islamic State fighters have killed at least 500 members of Iraq's Yazidi minority — including many women and children — burying some alive and taking hundreds of women as slaves.

His remarks came as U.S. forces carried out airstrikes for a third day against Islamic State fighters. U.S. planes also continued to drop food and water for thousands of Yazidis who are trapped on a mountain and threatened with slaughter by the armed group.

Iraq’s human rights minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani accused Islamic State fighters — who have ordered the Yazidi, whom they regard as "devil worshippers" to be converted to Islam or killed — of celebrating a "a vicious atrocity" with cheers and weapons waved in the air.

Islamic State’s advance through northern Iraq has forced tens of thousands of people to flee and has provoked the first U.S. airstrikes in the country since Washington withdrew troops from Iraq in late 2011. Islamic State overran U.S.-trained and equipped Iraqi government forces in recent weeks and now controls much of northern Iraq, with strongholds in the western regions straddling the Iraqi-Syrian border.

Beyond stemming the march of Islamic State fighters on the besieged Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar, Washington is carrying out the strikes with the aim of protecting both Baghdad and Irbil, the oil-rich capital of the Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region. The Islamic State offensive has prompted foreigners working for oil companies to leave the city, and Kurds to stock up on AK-47 assault rifles.

A Kurdish official told the Agence France-Presse news agency on Sunday that Kurdish fighters had rescued at least 20,000 Yazidi civilians from the mountain and escorted them back into Kurdistan the day before.

"Twenty thousand to 30,000 have managed to flee Mount Sinjar but there are still thousands on the mountain," Kurdish lawmaker Vian Dakhil told AFP. "They have arrived in Kurdistan." The report could not immediately be confirmed.

On Saturday, Halgord Hikmet, a spokesman for the Kurdish security forces, told Al Jazeera, "I can confirm that we succeeded in reaching the mountains and opening a road for the refugees."

U.S., Iraqi and British cargo planes on Friday began dropping food, water, tents and other equipment to the Yazidis trapped on the mountain. Iraq's defense ministry released a video showing people in the Sinjar mountains rushing to collect food and water as the Iraqi government's fleet of C-130 cargo planes dropped 20 tons of aid at a time.

Yazidis are followers of a religion influenced by the Zoroastrianism of ancient Persia, which Islamic State considers heretical. The group also sees Shia Muslims as apostates, and has demanded that Christians either convert to Islam or pay a special tax.

At least 56 children have died of dehydration in the mountains, according to the U.N. children’s agency.

The carnage against civilians and threat to Iraq's stability puts Washington in a difficult position. After spending more than $2 trillion on the war in Iraq and losing thousands of soldiers, the United States must now find ways to tackle the group. Islamic State was formerly associated with Al-Qaeda, but Al-Qaeda disassociated from the group over its insubordination and brutality.

President Barack Obama justified the U.S. military's return to fighting in Iraq Saturday by saying America must act now to prevent genocide, protect its diplomats and provide humanitarian aid to the Yazidis.

“This is going to be a long-term project” that won't end and can't succeed unless Iraqis form an inclusive government in Baghdad capable of keeping the country from breaking apart, Obama said at a White House press conference.

At the Vatican, Pope Francis held a silent prayer for victims of the Iraqi conflict, who include members of the country’s Christian minority.

"Thousands of people, among them many Christians, banished brutally from their houses, children dying of hunger and thirst as they flee, women kidnapped, people massacred, violence of all kinds," he said. "All of this deeply offends God and deeply offends humanity."

Al Jazeera and wire services

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