LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The estimated death toll in Tikrit, Iraq, after its seizure by the militant group Islamic State in June, has tripled after the discovery of additional execution sites and other new evidence, Human Rights Watch has reported.
New evidence has confirmed that there were five mass execution sites in the northern city, and that the number of people killed – mainly captured Iraqi army soldiers – totalled between 560 and 770, the international rights group said in a report on Tuesday.
Video images, cross referenced with satellite imagery, indicate that roughly 300 men were executed at one newly identified site on June 12 or 13, and raised earth mounds suggest the dead were buried on the spot in mass graves, the HRW report said.
“Another piece of this gruesome puzzle has come into place, with many more executions now confirmed,” said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch. “The barbarity of the Islamic State violates the law and grossly offends the conscience.”
Islamic State, an ultra-hardline offshoot of al Qaeda, has seized swathes of land in northern Iraq and eastern Syria over the past year and declared them a caliphate, attracting followers with a vision of an aggressively expanding Islamist state that has alarmed regional and Western powers.
In Tikrit, IS’s release of a new video at another execution site revealed at least two previously unknown rounds of executions of between 115 and 140 men, HRW said.
More than 150 men were killed at the two previously identified execution sites. The discovery of the three new execution sites brings the total to five, and the death toll is likely to climb further as more evidence emerges, Human Rights Watch said.
Ali, a 23-year-old survivor of one shooting, told Human Rights Watch he was captured on June 12 with thousands of other men as they tried to flee Tikrit. He described being driven to the largest execution site where he was crammed into a shipping container for six hours with over 100 other detainees, two of whom died due to the overcrowding and sweltering heat.
Ali said that on arrival, he heard the sound of gunfire from other execution sites. His Islamic State captors then lined him up with nine other men and shot them with a pistol, one after another.
Beneath his blindfold Ali saw the man next to him fall to the ground covered in blood, but somehow he was not hit, so he fell to the ground and feigned death until nightfall, when he escaped under cover of darkness.
A video released by Islamic State on Tuesday showed the beheading of American journalist Steven Sotloff, the second U.S. journalist the group has killed this year after James Foley in August.
(Editing by Tim Pearce; firstname.lastname@example.org)