U.S. airstrikes hit militants at Iraq dam after reported massacre

Last Updated Aug 16, 2014 8:15 PM EDT

ERBIL, Iraq -- U.S. airstrikes pounded the area around Iraq's largest dam on Saturday in an effort to drive out militants who captured it earlier this month, as reports emerged of the massacre of some 80 members of the Yazidi religious minority by Islamic extremists.

Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers told CBS News Saturday that there was a battle underway to retake the dam from the group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.

ISIS, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, took the dam just more than a week ago, CBS News correspondent Charlie D'Agata reported. It is Iraq's biggest. If it were destroyed or opened, it could cause catastrophic flooding.

American fighter jets and drones carried out nine airstrikes Saturday near the Mosul damn and the city of Erbil, U.S. Central Command said in a statement.

"U.S. Central Command conducted these strikes under authority to support humanitarian efforts in Iraq, as well as to protect U.S. personnel and facilities," the statement said.

The nine airstrikes destroyed or damaged four armored personnel carriers, seven armed vehicles, two Humvees and an armored vehicle, it said. All U.S. aircraft left the area safely.

Peshmerga fighters have gone on the attack in recent days trying to retake territory in northern Iraq that was lost to ISIS. But the soldiers told CBS News they're simply outgunned and they don't have heavy weapons and equipment to match the ones that ISIS stole from the Iraqi military.

The soldiers are asking for more help from the U.S. and European allies, and they're heavily reliant on U.S. airpower in terms of surveillance and airstrikes, D'Agata reported.

D'Agata said earlier that U.S. drones conducted more airstrikes in response to a reported massacre. Kurdish officials said that as many as 80 ethnic Yazidi men were executed. They were told to convert to Islam or die.

A Yazidi lawmaker and a Kurdish security official said fighters from ISIS massacred scores of Yazidi men Friday afternoon after seizing the village of Kocho. Both said they based their information on the accounts of survivors and warned that the minority group remains in danger despite U.S. aid drops and airstrikes launched to protect them.

ISIS fighters besieged the village for several days and gave its Yazidi residents a deadline to convert to Islam, Yazidi lawmaker Mahma Khalil said Saturday.

"When the residents refused to do this, the massacre took place," he said.

Halgurd Hekmat, a spokesman for Kurdish security forces, said the militants took the women and children of Kocho to the nearby city of Tal Afar, which is controlled by ISIS.

Their accounts could not immediately be confirmed. Areas held by the extremist group are not accessible to reporters.

Tens of thousands of Yazidis fled when ISIS earlier this month captured the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar, near the Syrian border. The Yazidis practice an ancient religion that the Sunni Muslim radicals consider heretical.

The plight of the Yazidis, tens of thousands of whom were stranded on a desert mountaintop for days, encircled by the Islamic extremists, prompted the U.S. to launch aid lifts as well as airstrikes to help Kurdish fighters get them to safety.

Most of the Yazidis were eventually able to escape to Iraq's largely autonomous Kurdish region. Some 1.5 million people have been displaced by fighting since ISIS' rapid advance across northern and western Iraq began in June.

The decision to launch airstrikes marked the first direct U.S. military intervention in Iraq since the last troops withdrew in 2011, and reflected growing international concern about the extremist group, which has carved out a self-styled Islamic territory in large parts of Iraq and neighboring Syria.

On Saturday, Britain's Ministry of Defense said it deployed a U.S.-made spy plane over northern Iraq to monitor the humanitarian crisis and movements of ISIS militants. It said the converted Boeing KC-135 tanker, called a Rivet Joint, would monitor mobile phone calls and other communication.

Germany's Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was in Baghdad on Saturday, where he announced his government would provide more than 24 million euros ($32.2 million) in humanitarian aid to Iraq.

"The first German air force planes are flying to Erbil at this moment to deliver humanitarian aid," Steinmeier said in a joint press conference with Iraq's acting Foreign Minister Hussein Shahristani.

"In the current situation where minorities, especially in northern Iraq, are expelled and murdered, where children are orphaned and women are enslaved, humanitarian aid is extremely important."

Two British planes also landed Saturday in the Kurdish regional capital Erbil carrying humanitarian supplies.

Khalil, the Yazidi lawmaker, said the U.S. must do more to protect those fleeing ISIS.

"We have been calling on the U.S. administration and Iraqi government to intervene and help the innocent people, but it seems that nobody is listening," Khalil said.

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