ISIS abducts almost 300 near Mosul, retreats with thousands

ISIS fighters have abducted 295 former Iraqi Security Forces members near the militant stronghold of Mosul and forced 1,500 families to retreat with them from Hammam al Alil town, according to the United Nations human rights organization.

Families, former members of security forces rounded up by militants, UN group says

Military vehicles of Peshmerga forces drive towards the town of Bashiqa, east of Mosul, during an attack on ISIS militants in Mosul, Iraq, on Monday. (Azad Lashkari/Reuters)

ISIS fighters abducted 295 former Iraqi Security Forces members near the militant stronghold of Mosul and also forced 1,500 families to retreat with them from Hammam al Alil town, the United Nations human rights organization said on Tuesday.

The abductions took place last week as Iraqi government forces, Kurdish Peshmerga and Shia militias backed by U.S.-led airstrikes pushed an offensive to recapture Mosul from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

The fate of these civilians is unknown for the moment.- UNHCHR spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani

"People forcibly moved or abducted, it appears, are either intended to be used as human shields or — depending on their perceived affiliations — killed," said Ravina Shamdasani, spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

About 100 of the former ISF officers were taken at around midnight on Nov. 3 from Mawaly village, which is about 20 kilometres west of Mosul. A further 195 were abducted between Nov. 1 and Nov. 4 from villages in Tal Afar district.

The abducted families were being taken from their town to Mosul airport, Shamdasani said

"The fate of these civilians is unknown for the moment," she told a UN briefing in Geneva.

The United Nations also had information that at least 30 sheikhs were abducted in Sinjar district on Nov. 2 or Nov. 3 and taken to an unknown location. It was trying to verify a report that 18 of them had been killed on Nov. 4 in Tal Afar district, Shamdasani said.

The operation against the ISIS stronghold in Iraq has entered its fourth week and Iraqi forces have so far gained just a small foothold in Mosul.

The UN human rights office has sources on the ground but the information they are able to provide is "patchy," Shamdasani said.

Peshmerga forces walk with their weapons in the town of Bashiqa, east of Mosul, during an operation to attack ISIS militants, on Tuesday. (Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters)

Targeting Tal Afar 

A coalition of mainly Shia Iraqi militias advancing on Tal Afar plans to seize a nearby military air base from the jihadists, the first time the Iran-backed forces have targeted such a base, militia officials said on Tuesday.

The Hashid Shaabi paramilitary forces are deployed in the arid region west of Mosul as part of a wider military campaign to retake the city. 

Tal Afar and its air base are located on the highway west of Mosul. Capturing them would help cut ISIS supply lines between Mosul and its Syrian territories, It would also offer a base for the Hashid's stated plan ultimately to take its battle with ISIS into Syria.

Capturing an air base would also point to the growing muscle of the Hashid forces, which officially report to the Shia-led government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi but are also backed by Tehran and often fly the banners of Iran's Supreme Leader.

"Now we are 25 kilometres from the Tal Afar air base," said Kareem Alewi, a commander of one of Hashid Shaabi brigades and a member of the Badr Organization, the most powerful force within the paramilitary alliance.

An Iraqi federal police officer holds a stuffed toy at the site of a mass grave in Hamam al-Alil, outside Mosul, on Monday. (Associated Press)

Mass grave investigated

Also on Tuesday Iraqi investigators probed a mass grave that was discovered the previous day by troops advancing further into ISIS-held territory near Mosul.

The chilling find was the latest instance of mass graves being uncovered on ground wrested from ISIS militants. In Iraq and Syria so far, the group has killed thousands of people in extrajudicial killings, the graves a dark testimony to its brutality.

Associated Press footage from the site shows bones and decomposed bodies among scraps of clothing and plastic bags dug out of the ground by a bulldozer after Iraqi troops noticed the strong smell while advancing into the town of Hamam al-Alil on Monday.

"Investigators flew in this morning and are on their way to the grave to conduct examinations and determine the cause of death," said Cabinet official Haider Majeed, in charge of mass grave investigations.

The first officials at the site said the grave, behind an earthen embankment near an agricultural college, likely holds about 100 bodies, many of them decapitated. The town lies some 30 kilometers from Mosul.

It was unclear who the victims were, but a soldier at the site pulled a child's stuffed animal from the scraps of clothing and rotting flesh, swarming with flies.

ISIS militants have carried out a series of massacres since seizing large swaths of southern and central Iraq in the summer of 2014, often documenting them with photos and videos circulated online.

With files from Associated Press