Witnesses speak of gunfire in northern Iraqi town seized 15 months ago by fighters who massacred or enslaved its Yazidi community.
Kurdish peshmerga forces have entered Sinjar “from all directions” to begin clearing the northern Iraqi town of Isis militants, the Kurdistan regional security council said on Friday.
Heavy bursts of gunfire could be heard in the town, as fighters filed down the hill overlooking the town from the north, some with rocket-propelled grenades on their shoulders, said witnesses.
The regional security council said peshmerga forces had seized key buildings and Isis were “defeated and on the run”. The Kurdish regional president, Masoud Barzani, is to hold a press conference later on Friday.
Sinjar, in northern Iraq, was seized 15 months ago by Isis forces, who massacred or enslaved the local Yazidi community and ousted other minorities from the Nineveh plains.
An offensive to retake the town was launched late on Wednesday and during Thursday as Kurds, backed by US-led airstrikes, severed a major supply line between the militant group’s stronghold in eastern Syria, and Mosul – their seat of power in Iraq.
As Kurdish forces took surrounding villages on Thursday, a commander said he had never seen Isis (also known as Daesh) so vulnerable. “For the last 15 months that I have been fighting Daesh, I have never seen them so weak, they were literally running away,” said Col Kamran Hawrami. “Our objective is to free Sinjar and the surrounding areas. The fighting is continuing on all fronts but we have passed by bodies of Daesh [fighters].”
Hundreds of Yazidi forces are also taking part in the attack on and one of their commanders said coalition air attacks had been key to the offensive.
Haydar Shasho, a top Yazidi commander and the head of the Sinjar protection force, who was east of Sinjar, in the village of Sulakh, said: “The coalition air cover was very helpful and if it was not for air support, it would be very difficult to reach the objective of the offensive. Sinjar town is important to Yazidi people because without Sinjar, Yazidis do not exist.”
The operation is the largest coordinated effort so far to seize ground from Isis and a test of US plans to defeat the group using the Kurds as proxies.
Kurdish officials said the drive was not part of long-mooted plans to retake either Mosul, or Raqqa, across the Euphrates river in Syria. However, they acknowledged that if the operation was successful, it would put additional pressure on Isis in both cities.
Although heavily targeted throughout the campaign, Isis has kept a supply line between Raqqa and Mosul largely open. The highway, in particular, has been a major conduit for trade and the flow of fighters inside the area declared as a caliphate by the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in mid-2014.
An Isis push to advance towards Irbil had been repelled by the Kurdish peshmerga later last year, but not before the jihadis almost succeeded in breaking the city’s defences, exposing chronic command and control issues in peshmerga forces, which until then had acted as self-contained and disparate forces.
Since then, and with extensive support from the US air force and its allies, the peshmerga have retaken much of the area north-east of Sinjar that was controlled by Isis, including the strategically vital Mosul dam.
Various Kurdish militias on the edge of Sinjar have been fighting guerrilla battles for months with Isis, damaging or destroying much of the picturesque city of ancient, narrow streets lined with modest stone houses. The factions include the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), the Syria-based People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Yazidi-led forces billing themselves as the Sinjar Resistance. Iraqi Kurdish fighters have also held positions farther outside the city.
Across the border, Kurdish irregular forces from the YPG have been successful in retaking part of north-east Syria from Isis. In doing so, they have angered Turkey. Ankara views the YPG as a close ally of the PKK, which has been fighting a separatist insurgency inside Turkish borders for close to 40 years.
Amira Sevo, 33, who escaped with five children from Sinjar, said she hoped the city would be freed soon so they could leave the refugee camp in Khanke, near Dohuk.
“My husband has been on Mount Sinjar for two days and he is fighting now in the Sinjar area. He went to fight Daesh in order to free Sinjar town. Two of my brothers are still in Daesh hands and I don’t know if they are still alive. Our life in this refugee camp is not good and I hope Sinjar is freed soon so we can go back to our homeland.”