(CNSNews.com) – As the U.N. scrambles to help tens of thousands of religious minority Iraqis displaced by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS/ISIL), experts are warning that jihadists may have forced 1,500 Christians and Yazidis into sexual slavery.
“Atrocious accounts on the abduction and detention of Yazidi, Christian, as well as Turkomen and Shabak women, girls and boys, and reports of savage rapes, are reaching us in an alarming manner,” two U.N. experts said in a statement released in Baghdad.
“We condemn, in the strongest terms, the explicit targeting of women and children and the barbaric acts [ISIS] has perpetrated on minorities in areas under its control,” said U.N. special representative for Iraq Nickolay Mladenov and special representative on sexual violence in conflict, Zainab Bangura.
“We remind all armed groups that acts of sexual violence are grave human rights violations that can be considered as war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
Mladenov urged regional governments and the international community to help secure the release of the women and girls captured by the jihadists.
Shortly after President Obama announced Thursday that U.S. military airstrikes and humanitarian airdrops had enabled large numbers of Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar to reach safety, a State Department spokeswoman said the potential for genocide in that specific location had lessened, but that it remained a concern in the broader region.
“Broadly speaking, there is still a potential here for genocide when you have a terrorist group that has said they want to find people just because of their religion and kill them, I think they’ve been pretty clear about what they want to do here,” said Marie Harf.
In his announcement, Obama stated that “we broke the ISIL siege of Mount Sinjar” but acknowledged that “the situation remains dire for Iraqis subjected to ISIL’s terror throughout the country.”
Last January the al-Qaeda-inspired jihadist group, which also controls territory in Syria, captured the city of Fallujah in Anbar province. Since early June it made significant gains north and west of Baghdad, capturing cities and towns including those in the historical heartland of Iraq’s Christian and Yazidi communities, the Ninevah plains near the Kurdish autonomous region. Non-Muslims were told to convert to Islam or face death.
Harf said Thursday 1.4 million Iraqis had been internally displaced by the violence since January.
She said the U.S. was working with the U.N. “to help those people, to get them food, water, shelter, urgent medical care. Obviously, we want them to be safe, and so the goal at the end of the day may be for some of them to return to their homes, but these places have to be safe. And in the meantime, we want to help them get what they need, the care they need.”
The humanitarian situation across northern Iraq is so dire that the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has begun transporting Yazidis to a refugee camp inside war-torn Syria.
Apart from tens of thousands of Yazidis sheltering in the Kurdish region, UNHCR said Thursday an estimated 15,000 were now seeking refuge in Syria, where they were being assisted by U.N. and non-governmental agencies.
“The refugees arrive exhausted and deeply traumatized, their feet covered in blisters, having spent days on Mt. Sinjar in searing temperatures without food, water or shelter after fleeing for their lives, then walking many hours – in some cases days – to find safety,” it said.
“They are extremely weak, thirsty, and hungry, especially the women and children, and many have untreated wounds.”
UNHCR said many children were with relatives, their own parents having been “killed, kidnapped or disappeared in the chaos.”
“Many refugees report they had to leave behind their elderly whom they could not carry, anxious to know if they were still alive,” it said. “Others who made it safely to the camp gave reports of young girls and women forced to stay behind and being sold. Families say that their young men were killed.”