BAGHDAD— The Islamic State group released more than 200 Yazidis on Wednesday after holding them for eight months, the latest mass release of captives by the extremists targeted by U.S.-led airstrikes and an Iraqi ground offensive.
Gen. Hiwa Abdullah, a peshmerga commander in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, said most of the freed 216 prisoners were in poor health and bore signs of abuse and neglect. He added that about 40 children are among those released, while the rest were elderly.
No reason was given for the release of the prisoners who were originally abducted from the area around Sinjar in the country’s north. The handover took place in Himera just southwest of Kirkuk, 290 kilometers (180 miles) north of Baghdad.
The freed captives wept and called out to God when greeted by their families, some so weak they lay on the arid ground. Women wiped away tears with their long headscarves.
“We are very happy now,” said Mahmoud Haji, one of the released Yazidis. “We were worried that they were taking us to Syria and Raqqa,” the Islamic State group’s de facto capital.
Those needing medical care were taken away by ambulances and buses to receive treatment.
Also among those released was Jar-Allah Frensis, a 88-year-old Christian farmer, and his wife.
Frensis said the militants broke into his house in Sinjar and arrested him along with his wife and son. Then, the family was separated and the son was taken away. He said he still doesn’t know what happened to his son.
“The militants took all of our money and jewelry. We have been living under constant fear till our release,” Frensis told The Associated Press.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the release, his spokesman said.
“Obviously, any release of innocent civilians is to be welcomed and I think one couldn’t help but being moved by the pictures” of the Yazidis after they were freed, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
Tens of thousands of Yazidis fled in August when the Islamic State group captured the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar, near the Syrian border. But hundreds were taken captive by the group, with some Yazidi women forced into slavery, according to international rights groups and Iraqi officials.
In January, the Islamic State group released some 200 Yazidi prisoners. At the time, Kurdish military officials said they believed the extremists released the prisoners as they were too much of a burden. This latest release comes after Iraqi ground forces, backed by U.S.-led airstrikes, retook the city of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown.
The Islamic State group still holds about a third of Iraq and neighboring Syria in its self-declared caliphate. The U.S. launched the airstrikes and humanitarian aid drops in Iraq on Aug. 8, partly in response to the Yazidi crisis.
The Sunni militant group views Yazidis and Shiite Muslims as apostates deserving of death, and has demanded Christians either convert to Islam or pay a special tax. The group has massacred hundreds of captive soldiers and tribal fighters who have risen up against it, publicizing the killings in sleek online photos and videos.
In other violence Wednesday in Iraq, police and hospital officials said a bomb exploded near an outdoor market in Baghdad’s southeastern suburb of Nahrwan, killing four people and wounding 10. No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to journalists.
SAMEER N. YACOUB, Associated Press___
Associated Press writers Ahmed Sami in Baghdad, Imad Matti in Kirkuk, Iraq, and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.