Jihadists seized Iraq’s largest Christian town and surrounding areas Aug. 7, sending tens of thousands of panicked residents fleeing in what is being called a humanitarian disaster, officials and witnesses said.
The onslaught saw the Sunni extremist Islamic State (IS) extend its writ over northern Iraq and move within striking distance of autonomous Kurdistan, in one of the most dramatic developments of the two month-old conflict.
IS militants moved into Qaraqosh and other towns overnight after the withdrawal of Kurdish peshmerga troops, who are stretched thin across several fronts, residents said.
“Qaraqosh, Tal Kayf, Bartella and Karamlesh have been emptied of their original population and are now under the control of the militants,” Joseph Thomas, the Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Kirkuk and Sulaimaniyah, told AFP.
Entirely Christian Qaraqosh is lies between Mosul, the jihadists’ main hub in Iraq, and Arbil, the Kurdish region’s capital. It usually has a population of around 50,000.
Tal Kayf, the home of a significant Christian community as well as members of the Shabak Shiite minority, also emptied overnight. “Tal Kayf is now in the hands of the Islamic State. They faced no resistance and rolled in just after midnight,” said Boutros Sargon, a resident who fled and was reached by phone in Arbil.
“I heard some gunshots last night and, when I looked outside, I saw a military convoy from the Islamic State… shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is greatest).”
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Chaldean Patriarch Louis Sako, who heads Iraq’s largest Christian denomination, said the overnight offensive had displaced 100,000 Christians.
“This is a humanitarian disaster. The churches are occupied, their crosses were taken down,” he told AFP, adding that 1,500 manuscripts had been burnt.
AFP could not immediately verify the status of those towns, which witnesses said have been completely emptied of their residents.