KHAZER CAMP, Iraq (AP) — Thousands of displaced Iraqis fled their camp in the face of advancing fighters of the Islamic State group, deepening the humanitarian crisis in the north of the country as the United States carried out its first airstrikes against the militants to blunt their assault.
The Khazer Camp stood empty Friday, located near the front lines of battles between the militants and Kurdish fighters. The camp had been populated by Iraqis who fled their cities and towns as they were taken over by Islamic State fighters in past weeks, and in the past few days they have been forced to flee again.
The militants have been making a push from their strongholds in northwest Iraq toward Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous zone. For days the two sides have been battling each other over a river at a destroyed bridge on the main road 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Irbil.
U.S. fighter jets dropped 400-pound bombs on an artillery piece and truck towing it after it fired near U.S. personnel outside Irbil, the Pentagon said.
An Associated Press reporter at Khazer saw at least six more explosions in the area Friday, apparently from airstrikes, though it was not known who was carrying them out, since the Iraqi air force has also been hitting positions of Islamic State group.
The U.S. airstrikes and humanitarian air drops reflect the deepest American engagement in Iraq since U.S. troops withdrew in late 2011, after nearly a decade of war. The move pointed to the growing crisis sparked by the Sunni radical group's advances.
Expanding from their stronghold of Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, the militants have captured a string of surrounding towns and even the country's largest hydroelectric dam and reservoir in recent weeks, solidifying their hold.
Ethnic and religious minorities in particular have fled in fear as their towns fall.
U.S. cargo planes on Thursday dropped relief supplies to tens of thousands of Yazidis — half of them children, according to the U.N. — who have been trapped on a remote desert mountain for days without food and water after militants took their town of Sinjar near the Syrian border, according to witnesses in Sinjar, who asked not to be identified for security reasons.
Kamil Amin, spokesman for Iraq's Human Rights Ministry, said hundreds of Yazidi woman under the age of 35 have been taken captive by the militants and that many of them were being held in Mosul.
Yazidis belong to ancient religion seen by the Islamic State group as heretical. The group also sees Shiite Muslims as apostates, and has demanded Christians either convert to Islam or pay a special tax.
Many of the Iraqis who fled Khazer Camp in recent days made their way by car or by foot to Irbil. Others are unaccounted for amid the vast sea of refugees and internally displaced people now roaming Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region.
The rush of people expelled from their homes or fleeing violence has exacerbated Iraq's already-dire humanitarian crisis, with some 200,000 Iraqis joining the 1.5 million people already displaced from violence this year.
In Irbil, hundreds of displaced Iraqi men crowded the streets of a Christian-dominated neighborhood Friday, expressing relief at the news of U.S. airstrikes.
Nazar, one of the men lingering outside a bare-bones building-turned-shelter, fled his mainly Christian town of Hamdaniya on Wednesday, when their home began to shutter from the blast of nearby mortar fire.
"We want a solution," said Nazar, who spoke on condition he be identified only by his first name, fearing his family's safety. "We don't to flee our homes and jobs like this — what is our future?"
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