FEARS were growing last night for the fate of hundreds of women from a religious minority hated by hardline Islamists after they were kidnapped by militants sweeping through Iraq.
The Yazidi women were being held in schools in the northern city of Mosul, which was taken over by fighters from the Islamic State, known as Isis and now IS, in recent weeks.
One expert on the religion said she feared they would be “slaughtered like cattle”.
The developments came on a day in which United States president Barack Obama ordered air strikes on Islamic State forces in an attempt to prevent a human catastrophe, amid fears for the safety of minorities which also included Christians.
He said: “We can act carefully and responsibly to prevent a potential act of genocide.”
Kamil Amin, from Iraq’s human rights ministry, said the Yazidi women are below the age of 35. He said Baghdad had only learned of the kidnappings after their families contacted officials in the capital and added: “We think that the terrorists have vicious plans for them.”
US cargo planes have dropped relief supplies to tens of thousands of Yazidis – half of them children, according to the United Nations – 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.
The Islamic State sees the ancient religion as heretical. It also regards Shiite Muslims as apostates and has demanded Christians convert to Islam or pay a tax.
Last night, Dr Erica Hunter, head of religious studies and senior lecturer in eastern Christianity at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, issued a bleak warning of potential slaughter.
Dr Hunter, who spent time with the Yazidis in northern Iraq last September, said: “Isis are completely bloody-minded in their interpretation of what Islam is. I knew for a long time that if Isis gained control of the area then the Yazidi would be in really grave trouble. They would slaughter them like cattle – they consider them cattle.”
Dr Hunter suggests the perceived rejection of Islam by the Yazidis is fuelling anger.
She said: “Islam has such a strict interpretation of the religion that no other expressions are allowable so because the Yazidis’ beliefs arose as a different off-shoot of Islam, they are seen as heretical.
“Their situation is worse than grave trouble – it is a catastrophe and a humanitarian crime.
“How would you feel if half your men had been slaughtered and your women were taken as concubines for Isis and your villages smashed up?
“At least with the Christians, when Isis pushed them out of Mosul a few days ago, they stripped them of everything, including their medicines, but they did leave them with their lives. They won’t do that with the Yazidis. They are very much endangered and in a perilous situation.”
Meanwhile, two F/A-18 aircraft from an aircraft carrier in the Gulf dropped 500lb laser-guided bombs on mobile artillery near Irbil, where US personnel are based.
The US also launched a second round of airstrikes against militants using drones and fighter jets at about 8pm last night.
Officials said unmanned aircraft struck a mortar near Ibril and four navy F/A-18 fighter jets targeted a seven-vehicle convoy outside the city. The jets flew from the USS George HW Bush aircraft carrier. It is not known if the US personnel on the ground were advisers or among the special forces sent into Iraq.
Reporters on the ground at the Khazer camp also counted at least six explosions in the area yesterday, apparently from airstrikes, though it was not known if they were American or Iraqi.
According to a Pentagon statement, the airstrikes are the first time the US has been directly involved in a military operation in Iraq since American troops withdrew in late 2011.
No time limit has been set for airstrikes, a White House spokesman said, but he insisted a “prolonged military conflict is not on the table”.
In London, 250 members of the Yazidi converged on Downing Street to hand letters to Prime Minister David Cameron, calling on him to help stop the massacre.
Yazidis living in the UK spoke of family members being killed and others “dying slowly” while they are trapped on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq.
One was Dr Khairi Al Shareef, 53, an engineering researcher from Cardiff who has lived in the UK since 1990.
Weeping, he said his family had been forced to flee the Yazidi town of Bashiqa after Islamic State militants moved in.
He said: “There is nobody left, Christian or Yazidi, any minorities – 500,000 families have fled. Isis came yesterday and they said, ‘If you don’t convert to Islam within three days, we will chop off your heads according to Sharia law. I have family there – I haven’t heard from them.”
Thousands of displaced Iraqis also fled their camp in the face of advancing Islamic State fighters. The Khazer displacement camp stood empty yesterday. It is located near the front lines between the militants and Kurdish fighters.
The militants have been making a push from strongholds in north-west Iraq towards Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous zone.