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May 27, 2017

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Civilians flee as battle for Iraq town rages

BAGHDAD--Terrified civilians were scrambling for shelter Monday as the battle for the northern Iraqi town they fled escalated, with fighters crossing from Syria to help fellow Kurdish forces battle jihadists.

The Islamic State (IS) raised its black flag in Sinjar on Sunday after ousting the Peshmerga troops of Iraq's Kurdish government, forcing thousands of people from their homes.

The conquest of Sinjar and several other towns at the weekend threatened to further integrate the Iraqi and Syrian halves of the "caliphate" IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed in June.

But the Peshmerga announced they were mounting a counter-offensive and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Monday ordered the air force to provide them support.

"The commander in chief of the armed forces has issued orders to the leadership of the air force and the army's aviation units to provide air support to Peshmerga forces," army spokesman Qassem Atta said in a statement.

The Peshmerga's fellow Kurds in Syria have meanwhile sent their own fighters across the border to help, in an unprecedented move.

"The Democratic Union Party (PYD) is fighting in the Sinjar area and Rabia," a senior army official told AFP, stressing that "it was not coordinated with the Iraqi government."

The Syria-based group posted pictures of what it said were its forces operating inside Iraq and said that PYD fighters had been battling IS militants north of Sinjar.

As Kurdish fighters converged on Sinjar, as well as the town of Zumar lost a day earlier, fleeing civilians risked being caught in the middle of the battle.

According to the U.N., up to 200,000 people have fled the Sinjar area.

The world body's top envoy in Iraq on Sunday called an unfolding "humanitarian tragedy" and voiced "grave concerns" over the fate of displaced families.

Fled in Panic

There were only patchy reports on their fate, as many ran from their homes in a panic, some embarking on a long march in the searing heat to reach the autonomous Kurdistan region and others scurrying into the mountains.

"IS does not have that many weapons but their propaganda is very effective," said Abu Asaad, a 50-year-old Turkmen Shiite who fled to Dohuk in Kurdistan with his wife and their seven children.

"In Sinjar, they sent messages saying they would occupy the town within an hour and so everybody fled," he told AFP.

Turkmen Shiite rights activist Ali al-Bayati said a few hundred people found refuge in an abandoned cement factory and needed immediate assistance.

He said IS had killed the men in another group they intercepted and taken the women to an airport outside the nearby city of Tal Afar.

Many of those who fled on Sunday were Yazidis, a small community that follows a 4,000-year-old faith and has been repeatedly targeted by jihadists who call them "devil-worshippers" because of their unique beliefs and practices.

"We last had contact with them last night (Sunday) but this morning we have not been able to make contact," said Khodhr Domli, a Yazidi rights activist based in the Kurdish city of Dohuk.

Double Threat

"They face a double threat: nature and Daash," he said, using IS' former Arabic acronym.

The Syrian Kurds and the Peshmerga have had tense relations in the past and there was no evidence the two groups were coordinating efforts to retake Sinjar.

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