BAGHDAD — Kurdish Iraqi forces launched a major operation Wednesday to retake the militant-held town of Sinjar in northern Iraq, part of a push to secure the road that leads directly to the Syrian border.
Peshmerga forces, backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, moved into the town, which has been under the control of the Islamic State group since August, a statement from the Kurdish Regional Security Council said. Peshmerga fighters were able to retake at least eight small villages around Sinjar, driving "large numbers" of militants to flee to Mosul and other areas under their control, the statement added.
The U.S.-led Combined Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve said Wednesday it conducted two airstrikes near Sinjar, destroying two militant vehicles, guard towers and a number of IS containers. It also said it conducted eight airstrikes near Mosul and two airstrikes in the nearby town of Tal Afar.
Peshmerga fighters have worked for months to push back the militant group, which has declared a self-styled Islamic state ruled by its brutal religious views in territory it seized across much of Iraq and Syria. Peshmerga forces said in September that they would focus on Sinjar after liberating the nearby towns of Rabia, Mahmoudiya and Zumar.
Tens of thousands of Sinjar residents, mainly those from the minority Yazidi group, fled into the mountains in August when the militant group captured the town, then became stranded there for more than two weeks after it was surrounded. Many were eventually airlifted off the mountain or escorted to a safe passageway.
Kurdish television showed images of peshmerga fighters in the mountains cutting off the road that leads from Rabia to the militant-held cities of Mosul and Tal Afar.
The peshmerga had achieved a string of victories on their own with the help of U.S. airstrikes and recently deployed in small numbers to help Syrian Kurds battling the Islamic State group in Kobani. The peshmerga also recently worked alongside Iraqi security forces and militia fighters to retake the towns of Julula and Saadiyah in eastern Iraq.
Meanwhile, Rudaw, the official media channel for Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region, said Wednesday that two of its journalists have been kidnapped by Islamic State militants. Freelance journalists Farhad Hamo and Massoud Aqeel disappeared near the Syrian Kurdish city of Qamishlo while on assignment for the network, Rudaw said in a statement on their website.
In Syria, more than 230 bodies believed to have been killed earlier this year by Islamic State group militants were found in a mass grave in the eastern Deir el-Zour province, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The bodies are believed to be members of the Shueitat tribe. In August, IS militants shot and beheaded hundreds of members of the tribe after crushing an uprising they led against the group's fighters. The Observatory said the bodies found Wednesday would bring the number of Shueitat members killed by IS to over 900. The report could not be independently confirmed.
Associated Press writer Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.