Yazidi Mass Grave Found in Iraq as ISIS Claims US Hostage Died in Airstrike

Al-Akhbar is currently going through a transitional phase whereby the English website is available for Archival purposes only. All new content will be published in Arabic on the main website (www.al-akhbar.com).

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Published Saturday, February 7, 2015

The remains of 23 men from Iraq's Yazidi religious minority were found when a mass grave was excavated in northern Iraq, an official said on Saturday.

It is the latest evidence of atrocities committed in areas held by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group to emerge since Kurdish forces pushed the jihadists back.

Meanwhile, the parents of an American hostage who ISIS claimed had been killed in a US-led coalition air strike have said they are "hopeful" she is still alive.

A team acting on a tip-off from a resident opened the mass grave near the village of Bardiyan on Friday, said Fuad Othman, a spokesman for the Kurdish regional government.

Othman said those killed had been shot, and some had their hands bound.

A ditch where some 25 people were murdered was found farther south in Nineveh province on February 1, and Othman said dozens more bodies were believed to be in an another grave in the Hardan area.

ISIS spearheaded a militant offensive that began in northern Iraq last June and overran large parts of the country, before again turning its attention to the north in August, driving Kurdish forces back and seizing more territory in Nineveh.

The jihadists carried out a campaign of killings, kidnappings, enslavement and rape against Yazidis and other minorities living in the area that the UN termed an "attempt to commit genocide."

The jihadist group, which declared a “caliphate” in areas under its control in Iraq and Syria, has also killed an untold number of civilians in both countries for opposing its rigid Salafi interpretation of Islam.

Backed by US-led air strikes, Iraqi Kurdish forces have made some gains in the region, driving ISIS back and retaking areas where the grave sites have been discovered.

Fate of American hostage unknown

ISIS said American hostage Kayla Jean Mueller had been buried under rubble when a Jordanian warplane hit a building in the Syrian city of Raqqa, their self-proclaimed "capital."

But the United States said there was no proof that the 26-year-old aid worker from Arizona had been killed.

"We are obviously deeply concerned by these reports. We have not at this time seen any evidence that corroborates ISIL's claim," said National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan, using another acronym for ISIS.

Her parents appealed to her captors to contact them and for her safe return, in a statement carried by NBC News.

"This news leaves us concerned, yet, we are still hopeful that Kayla is alive. We have sent you a private message and ask that you respond to us privately," said Carl and Marsha Mueller.

They said they had previously been in touch with ISIS following her kidnapping in August 2013.

"You told us that you treated Kayla as your guest, as your guest her safety and wellbeing remains your responsibility," they said.

Jordan — still reeling from the brutal murder of one of its pilots by ISIS — rejected the jihadists' claim that its warplanes killed Mueller, calling it an "old and sick trick" to deter coalition strikes.

"The plane from the crusader coalition bombed a position outside the city of Raqqa after Friday prayers," ISIS said.

"No fighter was wounded but we can confirm that an American hostage was killed," it said on jihadist websites. The group released photos of what it said were wreckage of the building in which they claimed Mueller was held, but did not include photos of Mueller herself.

The claim came as Amman said its fighter jets had launched dozens of strikes on ISIS, widening their campaign from Syria to include targets in neighboring Iraq.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitor, said more than 30 ISIS fighters were killed in coalition raids Friday around Raqqa.

Jordan is part of the international coalition battling ISIS.

US authorities have never given figures on the number of Americans kidnapped in Syria, sticking to a policy of complete silence.

The US National Security Council said it has not "seen any evidence that corroborates" the ISIS claim that Mueller had been killed.

Mueller travelled to the Syrian-Turkish border in 2012 to help refugees fleeing the civil war and was captured in Aleppo after leaving a Doctors Without Borders hospital.

Jordanian Interior Minister Hussein Majali said in remarks published Saturday that the burning alive of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kassasbeh by ISIS marked a "turning point" in the kingdom's fight against extremism.

Thousands of Jordanians marched Friday to demand retribution against ISIS for Kassasbeh’s brutal murder.

Queen Rania joined them after weekly prayers at the al-Husseini mosque, holding a portrait of the pilot with the words "Moaz the martyr of righteousness."

The kingdom's airstrikes are "the beginning of an ongoing process to eliminate" ISIS, Majali was quoted as saying by government newspaper Al-Rai.

Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh denounced the ISIS claim that Mueller had been killed.

"An old and sick trick used by terrorists and despots for decades: claiming that hostages human shields held captive are killed by air raids," Judeh tweeted.

Amman's government spokesman Mohammed al-Momani dismissed the jihadists' claim as "criminal propaganda."

"We are looking into it but our first reaction is that we think it is illogical and we are highly skeptical about it. … It's part of their criminal propaganda," Momani said.

"How could they identify Jordanian war planes from a huge distance in the sky? What would an American woman be doing in a weapons warehouse?" Momani said.

"They have lied that our pilot is alive and tried to negotiate claiming he is alive while they had killed him weeks before," Momani told AFP.

ISIS had offered to spare Kassasbeh's life and to exchange Japanese hostage Kenji Goto for Iraqi militant Sajida al-Rishawi, who was on death row for her role in deadly hotel bombings in Amman in 2005.

Goto was later beheaded and Jordan hanged Rishawi after ISIS released the video showing the murder of Kassasbeh, who was taken prisoner in December after his F-16 crashed in Syria.

Syria's conflict began as a peaceful revolt demanding democratic change, but evolved into a brutal war after government forces violently repressed demonstrators. Islamists have since poured into the country from all over the world, seeking to establish an “Islamic caliphate.”

More than 200,000 people have been reportedly killed since March 2011 and half of Syria’s population of 22 million has been forced to flee their homes.

(AFP, Reuters, Al-Akhbar)


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