"Islamic State" ("IS") militants have released more than 200 Yazidis in northern Iraq. The freed captives were reported to be in poor health, and showed signs of abuse and neglect.
Islamist extremists gave no reason for the mass release of 216 Yazidis on Wednesday after holding them for eight months in northern Iraq.
The Yazidis are an ancient, predominantly Kurdish people who follow their own religion derived from Islam, Christianity and Zoroastrianism.
Gen. Hiwa Abdullah, a Peshmerga commander in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, said many of the hostages were in "poor health" on their release and "showed signs of abuse and neglect."
He added that around 40 children were among those released, while the rest were elderly people.
They were abducted in the area around the town of Sinjar in Iraq's north. The handover took place in Himera just southwest of Kirkuk, 290 kilometers (180 miles) north of the capital, Baghdad.
"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," which is the IS group's de facto capital.
Crimes against humanity
The United Nations said last month IS militants may have committed genocide against the minority.
Tens of thousands of Yazidis fled when extremists captured Sinjar, near the Syrian border, last August.
However, hundreds were taken captive by the group with some Yazidi women forced into slavery, according to international rights groups and Iraqi officials.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed news of the latest release, his spokesman said.
"Obviously, any release of innocent civilians is to be welcomed and I think one couldn't help but be moved by the pictures of the Yazidis after they were freed," Stephane Dujarric said.
The move came after Iraqi ground forces, backed by US-led airstrikes, retook the city of Tikrit, which is the birthplace of former dictator Saddam Hussein.
Hostages 'too much of a burden'
In January, IS released around 200 Yazidi hostages also under seemingly mysterious circumstances. Kurdish military officials said they believed the extremists let them go as they were "too much of a burden."
The IS holds around a third of Iraq and neighboring Syria as part of its self-declared caliphate or Islamic republic.
The Sunni militant organization considers Yazidis and Shiite Muslims to be apostates deserving of death and has demanded Christians either convert to Islam or pay a special tax.
lw/kms (AP, Reuters)