The United Nations has warned that a mass atrocity or genocide of refugees in the Mount Sinjar region of northern Iraq could still happen “within days or hours”.
The UN's special rapporteur who has been investigating the plight of 40,000 mainly Kurdish-speaking Yazidis who fled to the mountain fearing attacks from the extremist militants of the Islamic State (IS), said the world urgently needed to recognise the severity of the humanitarian crisis.
Following the decision to deploy Tornado jets from RAF Marham in Norfolk to Iraq to aid surveillance of the zone where the refugees are trapped, the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, after chairing another meeting of the government's emergency response committee, Cobra, announced that Chinook helicopters were also being sent to Iraq.
However there are no indications that Britain will be following the US and adding to air strikes against IS targets. Downing Street confirmed it will be helping the supply lines of military equipment to Kurdish forces fighting the Islamist forces that now control a third of Syria. But it was made clear that the UK will not be supplying arms directly.
The Yazidis trapped in sweltering conditions in the exposed mountain region, many of them surviving without food or water for days, are among the quarter of a million religious minorities who fled their homes after “convert or die” ultimatums from the IS militants.
A draft UN report on the humanitarian crisis has cited women being executed, captured, branded as slaves, and sexually assaulted. Three RAF missions involving the dropping of essential supplies to the refugees have now taken place. More are being planned for the rest of this week and beyond.
The problems that led to an earlier aborted operation, cancelled out of fear that civilians on the ground could be hit, now seems to have eased.
The Department for International Development (DfID) said the latest missions involved dropping over 3,100 reusable water purification containers and 800 solar lamps that can be used to charge mobile phones that would aid direct communication with the refugees.
Downing St confirmed these air drops would be continuing, with a spokesman adding: “As part of our efforts to alleviate humanitarian suffering in Iraq, we are sending a small number of Chinook helicopters to the region for use if we decide we need further humanitarian relief options.
Meanwhile urgent planning to get those trapped on the mountainside to safety will continue in the coming days between ourselves and US, the Kurdish authorities and other partners.”
Christof Heyns, the UN's special rapporteur who examines the threat from arbitrary executions, said the international community must do all it could to protect the lives of those on the ground in Mount Sinjar.
Another UN official, Chaloka Beyani, said the world was witnessing “a tragedy of huge proportions unfolding in which tens of thousands of people are at immediate risk of death or violence by hunger and thirst.” The UN urged that humanitarian aid now had to be delivered quickly.
Although the UN's office in Irbil has reported that some Yazidis have managed to escape from the northern side of the mountain region and crossed into Syria, the horrors of those still trapped have been described as an imminent “genocide”.
by James Cusick