Up to 800 people from Iraq’s Yazidi community have fled across the border to Turkey after escaping a lightning offensive by jihadists from the Islamic State (IS) group, Turkish officials said on Thursday.
The Yazidis are the latest victims of violence in the Middle East to find sanctuary in Turkey, after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s open door policy resulted in the influx of over one million Syrian refugees into the country.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu also revealed that Iraqi military helicopters had dropped Turkish aid for the Yazidis in northern Iraq, but the Turkish military denied its jets had entered Iraqi airspace.
Some “600 to 800 Yazidis have made their own way to Turkey since Wednesday,” a government official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
“They have been accommodated by the local authorities in a housing complex for earthquake victims in the town of Silopi near the Iraqi border.”
An attack by the IS at the weekend sparked a mass exodus from the northern part of Iraq including the town of Sinjar, where most of the population is made up of the Yazidi minority.
A Turkish foreign ministry official described the flight of the Yazidis as a “human tragedy”.
“It is not possible for Turkey to remain indifferent to this. We will fulfil our responsibility,” the official told AFP.
The Yazidi are a closed community that follows an ancient faith rooted in Zoroastrianism and are scorned by jihadists as “devil worshippers”, a term the Yazidi angrily reject.
– ‘Circle of fire’ –
The advance of Islamist militants in northern Iraq has alarmed Turkey, which is still trying to secure the release of dozens of its citizens held by the IS in Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul.
Davutoglu held a three-hour long crisis meeting Thursday with military and intelligence chiefs to discuss the potential fallout from Iraq.
“There is a circle of fire in the region surrounding Turkey,” he said, adding that some neighbouring governments had lost control of their countries.
Davutoglu said Turkey had increased humanitarian operations in Iraq, including a large package containing food and water dropped by Iraqi helicopters on the Sinjar mountains where the Yazidi community was stranded.
He insisted that the Turkish government strategy was based on helping Iraqis within their own territory.
“We could not do this during the Syrian crisis because a safe zone… could not be established,” said Davutoglu.
The general staff of the Turkish armed forces late Thursday denied reports that its planes had entered Iraqi air space for the aid drop.
“Claims Turkish air force planes flew in Iraqi air space on August 7 do not reflect reality,” it said in a statement.
Turkey is hosting 1.2 million Syrian refugees who have fled more than three years of brutal civil war. Many live in camps along the volatile border with others scattered throughout the country, including in Istanbul.
Officials say Turkey set up an aid centre at the Habur border gate and dispatched trucks carrying food and medicine to cities across northern Iraq.
The government is also planning to establish a 20,000-capacity camp in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Dohuk for Iraqi Turkmens.
Davutoglu said Turkey was working “day and night” to bring back the dozens of Turkish citizens, including the chief consul, kidnapped in June by jihadists in Mosul.
He lashed out at speculation that the government was preparing a “hostage show” ahead of Sunday’s presidential elections where Erdogan is the clear favourite.
Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) filed a censure motion against Davutoglu this week over the unresolved hostage crisis.