Kurdish peshmerga forces on Tuesday recaptured several Christian villages in northern Iraq in clashes with Islamic State (IS) rebels, an officer and a cleric said.
Tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians, most of them Chaldeans, fled their homes when IS rebels launched a renewed drive in the north in early August.
Iraq’s largest Christian town, Qaraqosh, and dozens of other villages were all but emptied in what Christian leaders described as the worst disaster for the minority in centuries.
Peshmerga forces ousted IS rebels from four villages west of the Kurdish capital Arbil on Tuesday during fighting in which rockets and mortar rounds were used, a senior officer said.
The villages — Hassan al-Sham, Syudan, Bahra and Jisr al-Khadhr — are located in the Nineveh plain region, which lies between Arbil and the main IS hub of Mosul.
The peshmerga, the main security forces of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, are receiving arms and ammunition from countries including the United States and France.
A source in the Catholic Chaldean church confirmed to AFP that Kurdish forces had made progress Tuesday.
“The peshmerga managed to liberate several villages, including Hassan al-Sham and Syudan. (IS) militants have now fled from there,” the cleric said on condition of anonymity.
He said the villages were important because of their location close to the towns of Bartalla and Qaraqosh.
IS rebel fighters on June 9 launched an offensive that saw them seize the second city of Mosul and sweep through much of Iraq’s Sunni heartland in a matter of days.
In another push in early August, they targeted minority groups, took control of the country’s largest dam and moved within striking distance of Arbil.
That prompted Washington to send warplanes back into the skies over Iraq for a bombing campaign to support efforts by Kurdish and federal forces to recapture lost ground.
IS rebels have also seized large areas of neighbouring Syria and beheaded three Western hostages, causing an international outcry. SAPA