Tens of thousands of members of Iraqi religious minority groups driven from their homes for fear of the jihadist group Islamic State are dying of thirst and heat on a desert mountainside in the north of the country, according to the United Nations and human rights groups.
Some 40 children have already died from the heat and dehydration, the UN children's organisation Unicef says, while upwards of 40,000 more are sheltering in the mountains, without food or water or access to supplies. It says 25,000 children may be stranded. Hundreds of adults are already feared to have been killed or abducted by the group, which now surrounds their hiding place.
Most of the refugees, who fled their home city of Sinjar when it was seized by Islamic State at the weekend, are members of the Yazidi community. The Yazidis are an offshoot from Zoroastrianism and the "Peacock Angel" at the centre of their beliefs is associated by some Sunni Muslims with Satan.
This makes them especially vulnerable to the sectarian attacks practised by Islamic State. The group's social media feeds have already begun to show executions said to be of Yazidi men.
One man told an Amnesty International researcher, Donatella Rovera, his relatives were among 30 people seized by Islamic State from the village of Khana Sor, near Sinjar. "They killed the 15 men and took the women and children and we do not know if they are alive or dead," he said.
Iraqi people from the Yazidi community arriving in Irbil in northern Iraq after Islamic militants attacked the towns of Sinjar and Zunmar. Photo / AP
"We are being slaughtered. Our entire religion is being wiped off the face of the earth," a Yazidi MP, Vian Dakhil, was quoted as saying in parliament.
Islamic State swept across most Sunni parts of Iraq at the beginning of June, seizing the second-biggest city, Mosul, and the birthplace of Saddam Hussein, Tikrit. Its fighters are still attacking Shia-majority areas in the centre and south of Iraq, including within a few miles of Baghdad, but have held off from a full-frontal attack. They seemed also to have been held up by Kurdish forces in the north and east, which guard the Kurdistan autonomous region. However, Kurdish forces too were forced to retreat by a sudden advance across a 130 kilometre front at the weekend, and abandoned Sinjar.
The jihadists' advance has sent Christians, Shia, and other minority groups flooding into Kurdistan for protection.
The Yazidis mostly fled south when Sinjar was attacked, but the mountains where they are hiding are cut off by Islamic State. Some photos have emerged of lines of cars, and groups of people huddled at the entrance of caves.
The army has managed to drop some supplies by helicopter, but not enough.
"The civilians trapped in the mountain area are not only at risk of being killed or abducted; they are also suffering from a lack of water, food and medical care," Ms Rovera said. Amnesty claimed the Kurdish government had begun blocking access to refugees. The Peshmerga announced their troops were in the area, but have so far been unable to reach the refugees.
"The plight of displaced people caught up in the fighting in Iraq is increasingly desperate," Ms Rovera said.