Fifty-one Yazidi women and children were released this week by Islamic State (IS) after a prisoner exchange by Kurdish forces in Syria, reports and local activists said.
The former IS prisoners were returned home to the town of Sinjar in northern Iraq where they were kidnapped by militants nearly 19 months ago, ex-prisoners told a Kurdish news agency, Roj News.
“I have talked to some of them yesterday,” said Dawud Sheik Kalo, a Yazidi fighter near the Sinjar area. “There are in safety right now.”
Watch: Yazidi women and children after being freed by IS.
He told VOA that this was the third wave of Yazidi civilians released just in March. The other two waves have not been confirmed.
“We were kept in Tal Afar [in Iraq] for nine months,” a woman ex-prisoner told the Kurdish news agency. “Then we were taken to Syria. We stayed there for 11 months,” she said.
Yazidis Traded For Two IS Commanders
The release of Yazidis came after a prisoner exchange between the Kurdish YPG forces and IS fighters in Syria. Local news reports say two IS commanders were exchanged for their release.
When contacted by VOA, a YPG spokesman declined to comment on the issue.
“We know YPG was involved in the exchange. We just don’t have enough details about it,” Kalo told VOA by phone.
The U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in Syria have conducted similar exchanges with the terror group in the past, he said. The newly freed women said entire families were taken by the extremist group after the Sinjar onslaught that had begun in August 2014.
“My family and I were taken hostage by Daesh,” said a teenage Yazidi using the Arabic name for IS.
“After we got to Syria, they separated the men from us,” she added.
Thousands of Yazidis were slaughtered and abducted by IS in Sinjar and surrounding areas after militants took over large swathes of northern Iraq, rights groups say. Many Yazidi women and girls were used as sex slaves by IS members, activists and human rights groups say.
Last week U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry determined that atrocities committed by the IS militants in Iraq and Syria constitute genocide, “including [atrocities against] Yazidis, Christians and Shi'ite Muslims,” Kerry told reporters.
Sinjar, the main heartland of Yazidis in Iraq, was liberated from IS last year by Kurdish Peshmerga forces, supported by the U.S.-led coalition.