Baghdad/Vatican City Aug 7 :
Thousands of Christian families Thursday fled their homes in northern Iraq after militants of the Islamic State (IS) Sunni insurgent group seized several predominantly Christian areas in Nineveh governorate even as Pope Francis expressed concern over the situation in northern Iraq.
The IS rebels took the cities of al-Hamdaniya and Telkif, north of Mosul, after defeating the Kurdish Peshmerga forces who controlled the area, security sources told Efe news agency.
The Islamic extremists also captured Bertala, al-Kuir and Ba’shiqah, inhabited both by Muslims and Christians, near Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan region.
Thousands of families abandoned their homes and fled to neighbouring Kurdistan in search of a safe haven, the sources said.
The IS took control of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, last June and since then it has advanced to other regions including Sinjar, making it closer to the last border crossing with Syria which it does not control.
The IS has seized large parts of Iraq and Syria to create an Islamic caliphate and has warned Christians they should convert to Islam or leave.
The rebel takeover of Sinjar three days ago led some 200,000 civilians to flee to the nearby mountains, mostly Kurds of the religious Yazidi community.
The refugees, who are trying to reach Kurdistan, urgently need water, food, shelter and medicines, the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) spokesman David Swanson told Efe.
According to OCHA, since January 2014 the surge in violence between government forces and armed groups has displaced 1.2 million people in central and northern Iraq.
According to an earlier Xinhua report, the latest fall of towns into the hands of the militants came amid fierce clashes between the Kurdish Peshmerga security forces and Islamic State militants.
The Kurdish Peshmerga forces have launched a major offensive to throw back the IS militants who earlier seized many towns in Nineveh.
The Peshmerga has since retaken control of some villages and part of Sinjar, but so far the Kurds have apparently failed to take full control of the town and the other areas seized earlier by the IS militants.
On Tuesday, the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) said in a statement that up to 40 children from displaced families of the Yazidi minority, who have moved to a nearby mountain, were reported to have died.
“According to official reports received by the Unicef, these children from the Yazidi minority died as a direct consequence of violence, displacement and dehydration over the past two days,” the statement said.
The battlefields of Talkif, Qaraqoush, Sinjar are part of disputed areas which are ethnically mixed with Kurds, Arabs, Turkmens and others.
The Kurds have demanded expansion of their autonomous region in northern Iraq to include the oil-rich province of Kirkuk and other areas in the Iraqi provinces of Nineveh, Salahudin and Diyala, but their move is being fiercely opposed by the central government in Baghdad.
Early in June, the Peshmerga took control of the disputed areas, including the northern city of Kirkuk after the Iraqi security forces abandoned their bases following the IS’s June 10 blitzkrieg across Iraq in which the Al Qaeda offshoot and other Sunni militant groups seized large swathes of territory in predominantly Sunni provinces.
Meanwhile, Pope Francis Thursday expressed concern over the violence in northern Iraq, following the exodus of thousands of Christian families, Efe reported.
The Vatican press office said the Pope had received with “concern” the “dramatic news coming from northern Iraq, where the most affected are Christian communities which must leave their villages because of the violence in the region”.
In a statement, Francis urged the international community to put an end to this “humanitarian crisis and protect those threatened by violence”.
Meanwhile, in Paris, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius called for an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council to condemn the “terrorist threat in Iraq”.
Thursday also saw attacks against Shia Muslims being stepped up in the strife-torn country with two bomb attacks killing 21 people and injuring scores of others.
At least 12 people were killed and some 30 wounded in a suicide car bomb attack in Iraq’s capital Baghdad Thursday afternoon, an interior ministry source said.
A suicide bomber rammed his explosives-laden car into a security checkpoint and blew it up on a main road in the predominantly Shia district of Kadhmiyah in the northern part of Baghdad, the source told Xinhua on condition of anonymity.
The attack against the Shia Muslim community was the second in the day after the blast in a booby-trapped minibus near a Shia mosque in downtown Kirkuk, some 250 km north of Baghdad, which left at least nine people, including three children, dead and 53 others wounded, many of whom were women and children.
The huge blast struck dozens of people seeking refuge in the Shia mosque. They had fled their homes in the city of Tal Afar in northern Iraq in the wake of advances by the IS militants, the source said.