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'Far fewer' stranded on Iraq mountain than feared: US

DOHUK, Iraq -- An American assessment team found “far fewer” Yazidis trapped in northern Iraq than expected, making an evacuation mission less likely, as the flight of minority groups from advancing jihadists showed no let-up Thursday.

The U.N. refugee agency had said tens of thousands of civilians, many of them from the Yazidi religious minority, were trapped on Mount Sinjar by jihadists of the Islamic State (IS) militant group, which has overrun swathes of Iraq and Syria.

But the Pentagon said that — based on a firsthand assessment by a small party of U.S. military personnel — the plight of those on the mountain was not as bad as had been feared, and an evacuation mission was therefore “far less likely.”

A U.S. military official said the special forces personnel had returned safely to Arbil, the capital of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region.

Pentagon press secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby said the fewer than 20 troops did not engage in any combat.

“The team has assessed that there are far fewer Yazidis on Mount Sinjar than previously feared, in part because of the success of humanitarian air drops, air strikes on (IS) targets, the efforts of the (Kurdish forces) and the ability of thousands of Yazidis to evacuate from the mountain each night over the last several days,” he said.

“The Yazidis who remain are in better condition than previously believed and continue to have access to the food and water that we have dropped.”

Iraqi helicopters and Kurdish forces have been trying to reach those trapped by jihadists who are targeting Yazidis, Christians and other minorities, and Washington and its allies have been studying ways to bring them out.

The Yazidis are a closed Kurdish-speaking community that follows their own non-Muslim faith and are despised by the jihadists as “devil worshippers.”

Various countries are ramping up their efforts to aid the trapped civilians and Kurdish forces battling the militants, and the U.S. has launched a series of air strikes since Friday.

But a U.S. military rescue operation on the mountain would take American involvement to another level.

'From hunger to hunger'

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Iraqi children from the Yazidi community wait in a refugee camp near the Turkey-Iraq border at Silopi in Sirnak on Thursday, Aug. 14. (AFP)

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