BAGHDAD - Islamic State militants have killed at least 500 members of Iraq's Yazidi minority, burying some alive and taking hundreds of women as slaves, an Iraqi government minister said on Sunday.
Human rights minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani accused the Sunni Muslim insurgents - who have ordered the community they regard as "devil worshippers" to convert to Islam or die - of celebrating a "a vicious atrocity" with cheers and weapons waved in the air. No independent confirmation was available.
Islamic State's advance through northern Iraq has forced tens of thousands to flee, threatened the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region and provoked the first US air strikes in the area since Washington withdrew troops from Iraq in late 2011.
The United States conducted new air strikes on Islamic State targets near Arbil, the capital of Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region, U.S. Central Command said on Sunday. The strikes, launched by drone aircraft and U.S. fighter jets, were aimed at protecting Kurdish Peshmerga forces as they face off against Islamist militants near Arbil, the site of a US consulate and a US-Iraqi joint military operations center, Central Command said in a statement.
Sudani said in a telephone interview that news of the killings had come from people who had escaped town of Sinjar, an ancient home of the Yazidis, a Kurdish-speaking community whose religion has set them apart from Muslims and other faiths.
"We have striking evidence obtained from Yazidis fleeing Sinjar and some who escaped death, and also crime scene images that show indisputably that the gangs of the Islamic State have executed at least 500 Yazidis after seizing Sinjar," he said
"Some of the victims, including women and children were buried alive in scattered mass graves in and around Sinjar."
President Barack Obama said on Saturday that US air strikes had destroyed arms that the Islamic State, which has captured swathes of northern Iraq since June, could have used against the Iraqi Kurds. However, he warned that there was no quick fix for the crisis that threatens to tear Iraq apart.
Kurdish regional president Masoud Barzani urged his allies to send arms to help his forces hold off the militants, who have bases across the Syrian border. During a visit by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, Barzani said: "We are not fighting a terrorist organization, we are fighting a terrorist state."
In comments likely to put pressure on Washington to step up its response to Islamic State, Iraqi rights minister Sudani said: "The terrorist Islamic State has also taken at least 300 Yazidi women as slaves and locked some of them inside a police station in Sinjar and transferred others to the town of Tal Afar. We are afraid they will take them outside the country.
"In some of the images we have obtained there are lines of dead Yazidis who have been shot in the head while the Islamic State fighters cheer and wave their weapons over the corpses," he added. "This is a vicious atrocity."
A deadline passed at midday on Sunday for 300 families from the Yazidi community - followers of a religion influenced by the Zoroastrianism of ancient Persia - to convert to Islam or die. It was not immediately clear if the victims to whom the minister referred were from that group of families.
US military aircraft have dropped relief supplies to tens of thousands of Yazidis who have collected on the desert top of nearby Mount Sinjar, seeking shelter from the insurgents.
At the Vatican, Pope Francis held a silent prayer for victims of the Iraqi conflict, who include members of the Christian minority, during his weekly address on Sunday.
"Thousands of people, among them many Christians, banished brutally from their houses, children dying of hunger and thirst as they flee, women kidnapped, people massacred, violence of all kinds," he said.
"All of this deeply offends God and deeply offends humanity."