MOUNT SINJAR (Iraq) • Iraqi Kurdish forces backed by United States-led strikes launched a major operation yesterday to retake the town of Sinjar from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group and cut a key supply line to Syria.
Kurdish peshmerga forces have started clearing parts of the northern Iraqi town and have established positions along an ISIS supply route between its two main strongholds of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, the coalition said yesterday.
So far, the Kurds have captured three villages and penetrated parts of Highway 47, the supply route between Raqqa and Mosul.
The retaking of Sinjar - where ISIS carried out a brutal campaign of killings, enslavement and rape against the Yazidi religious minority - would also be an important symbolic victory.
"The attack began at 7am (noon Singapore time), and the (Kurdish) peshmerga forces advanced on several axes to liberate the centre of the Sinjar district," Major-General Ezzeddine Saadun said.
The autonomous Kurdish region's security council said up to 7,500 Kurdish fighters were taking part in the operation, which aims to retake Sinjar "and establish a significant buffer zone to protect the (town) and its inhabitants from incoming artillery".
"Coalition warplanes will provide close air support to peshmerga forces throughout the operation," it said.
The US-led coalition has carried out dozens of strikes in the past few weeks in support of the peshmerga.
Kurdish forces and the US military said the number of ISIS fighters in the town had increased to nearly 600 after reinforcements arrived in the run-up to the offensive, which has been expected for weeks but delayed by the weather and friction between various Kurdish and Yazidi forces in Sinjar.
ISIS militants could be heard speaking in Arabic and Turkmen in intercepted walkie-talkie chatter. "Where are you?" asked one. "Praise be to God," said another. One fighter noted that a car used by his comrades had been destroyed.
The fact that the Sinjar operation comes at the same time as others against ISIS increases pressure on the group. "It paralyses the enemy, right - he's got to make very tough decisions now on who he reinforces," Colonel Steve Warren, spokesman for the international operation against ISIS, said.
For Yazidi forces, the battle is very much about retribution. Mr Hussein Derbo, head of a peshmerga battalion made up of 440 Yazidis, said his men could have migrated to Europe but chose to fight. "It is our land and our honour. They (ISIS) stole our dignity. We want to get it back," he said on the outskirts of Sinjar town.
Meanwhile, ISIS has released a video threatening attacks in Russia "very soon", the Site monitoring group said yesterday.
Al-Hayat Media Centre, ISIS' foreign language media division, released a Russian language video with chants of "Soon, very soon, the blood will spill like an ocean", Site reported.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS