DUHOK, Iraq (Reuters) - A mass grave believed to contain the remains of more than 70 members of Iraq’s Yazidi minority was discovered east of Sinjar town on Saturday after Kurdish forces claimed victory over Islamic State militants in the area, the mayor and locals said.
The insurgents overran Sinjar in northwest Iraq in August 2014, systematically killing, capturing and enslaving thousands of its Yazidi inhabitants in what the United Nations has said may constitute attempted genocide.
The mayor of Sinjar and local Yazidis who visited the site of the mass grave said they saw clumps of hair, bones, money and keys which they believed belonged to older women from the village of Kocho whom the militants separated from the young during their onslaught.
The younger women were taken into sexual slavery, but the older ones were led behind an institute in the Solagh area east of the Yazidi heartland of Sinjar and, a short while later, gunfire was heard, according to locals who survived.
Twenty-four-year-old Badr Sleiman Taha from Kocho said his mother, aunt and grandmother were amongst those killed behind the institute, and that he recognized the cane of an old woman from his village among the remains.
“Death would have been better than what I felt when I saw that grave,” Taha told Reuters by phone from Sinjar. One 25-year-old said his mother was among the dead, also describing how young women had been separated from old.
U.S. President Barack Obama invoked the duty to prevent a genocide of Yazidis when authorizing the first air strikes against Islamic State militants who consider the minority as devil-worshippers.
The Yazidi are a religious sect whose beliefs combine elements of several ancient Middle Eastern religions.
Mahma Xelil, the mayor of Sinjar, said the grave would be left undisturbed so that experts could analyze the remains and collect evidence for a case to recognize the atrocities inflicted on the Yazidi community as genocide.
Several mass Yazidi graves have already been uncovered in the area north of Sinjar mountain, which was taken from Islamic State in Dec. 2014.
Kurdish forces retook Sinjar town itself on Friday in a two-day offensive backed by airstrikes from the U.S.-led coalition, which also cut a key supply route from Mosul to Raqqa - Islamic State’s bastions in Iraq and Syria.
The Kurdistan Region’s Security council said 28 villages had been taken during “Operation Free Sinjar” and more than 200 sq km freed from militant control.
Most of Iraq’s Yazidi population is still living in camps in the Kurdistan region, and more than 2,000 women remain in Islamic State captivity.
Reporting by Isabel Coles; Editing by Clelia Oziel