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'16 mass graves found' after Iraqi town of Sinjar freed from Islamic State

Published 04/12/2015

Smoke from a coalition air strike billows over the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar (AP)
Smoke from a coalition air strike billows over the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar (AP)

The UN human rights office says it has received reports of 16 mass graves discovered near Sinjar, the north-western Iraqi town that was liberated from Islamic State last month.

Spokeswoman Cecile Pouilly, of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said she has no details about how many bodies might be inside the graves.

Sinjar mayor Mahma Khalil said 17 mass graves had been uncovered on the outskirts of Sinjar, but had no more information or estimates on the number of bodies.

IS captured Sinjar in August last year, killing and enslaving members of the Yazidi religious minority and forcing thousands to flee.

The reports were the latest among many instances of mass graves being uncovered in territory wrested from IS militants in Iraq and Syria. Thousands of people have been killed in summary and extra-judicial killings by the Sunni militants and the graves have been a dark testimony to the group's brutality.

In June last year, 1,700 Iraqi soldiers were captured and killed when IS militants overran Saddam Hussein's home town of Tikrit. At the time, the soldiers were trying to flee from Camp Speicher, a nearby army base where they were deployed.

Mass graves with hundreds of Iraqi soldiers' bodies were found after the city was liberated in April.

The extremist group's rapid expansion in Iraq's north, which included a push toward the city of Irbil - the regional capital of Iraq's Kurdish north - spurred the US-led coalition to launch a campaign of air strikes against IS in Iraq and later Syria.

Whenever a discovery of mass graves is made, experts warn that proper excavation and identification of the bodies could take months or longer as many of the sites are in close proximity to active front lines.

The UN uses the term mass grave to refer to a location where three or more victims of what the world body defines as extra-judicial, summary or arbitrary executions are buried - not those who have been killed in combat, attacks such as bombings or armed confrontation.

Among the first mass graves uncovered in Sinjar - within days of IS forces being pushed out of the town - was one near the town's centre that has been estimated to contain the bodies of 78 elderly women, and another, about 10 miles outside Sinjar, with between 50 and 60 bodies of men, women and children, according to Qasim Samir, the Sinjar head of intelligence.

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