By Constantinos Psillides
PRIME Minister David Cameron cut short his holiday and returned home yesterday to chair a meeting to decide on Britain’s more active response to the Iraq crisis, sending four Chinook helicopters to the base in Akrotiri following Tuesday’s arrival of three Tornado jets.
The fighter aircraft have been tasked with providing intelligence by flying over the crisis area to facilitate the delivery of UK aid to the Yazidi people, driven into the Sinjar mountain range in their attempt to flee Islamic State (IS) fighters who have told them to “convert or die”.
Two Royal Air Force C-130 Hercules military transport aircraft were being used to carry out the humanitarian drops. But the arrival in Cyprus of the four Chinooks, which can hold up to 70 people, has given rise to speculation that an evacuation was imminent.
According to UK press reports, Cameron said that “detailed plans were being put in place” for an international mission to rescue the stranded Yazidis and that Britain “will play a role in delivering it”.
The Prime Minister spoke after returning from his family holiday to chair a meeting of the government’s Cobra emergency committee to discuss the crisis.
But he insisted the UK involvement remained a humanitarian mission as he faced calls to directly arm Kurdish forces or join the US in air strikes against IS fighters.
Several MPs in London have called on Cameron to recall parliament from its summer recess to discuss Iraq, while at least two former senior military figures have said Britain should follow the US lead and intervene militarily against Islamist fighters there on humanitarian grounds.
Cameron dismissed demands for parliament to be recalled, saying it was unnecessary at this stage but would be kept under review.
“We need a plan to get these people off that mountain and get them to a place of safety. I can confirm that detailed plans are now being put in place and are underway and that Britain will play a role in delivering them.”
The PM declined to give any details of the mission – such as whether Chinook helicopters being sent to the region could play a role in any evacuation.
Until now the UK has been focusing on providing aid to the thousands of people belonging to the Yazidi religious sect who are fleeing their homes in their thousands.
International Development Secretary Justine Greening issued a statement yesterday confirming a third round of UK aid drops, including shelter.
“As thousands of Iraqi people remain cut off away from their homes, we are focused on getting help to those in need, particularly those trapped on Mount Sinjar. After last night, the RAF have successfully made five drops, including thousands of containers filled with clean water that can also be used to purify dirty water and hundreds of shelter kits,” said Greening.
The UN Refugee Agency said about 35,000 people had escaped from the mountains into Syria and then into the Kurdistan region of Iraq in the past three days.
An estimated 20,000 to 30,000 Yazidis remained trapped without food, water or shelter, according to the UN that estimated that 700,000 Yazidis had been displaced.
In a statement, Downing Street said “urgent planning to get those trapped on the mountainside to safety would continue in the coming days between ourselves and the US, the Kurdish authorities and other partners.”
The British press reported, however, that it was likely the Tornado jets would be armed and that Downing Street also confirmed the Chinooks would also carry military equipment donated by other countries to the Kurds.
European Union foreign ministers are to meet tomorrow to discuss the crisis in Iraq as well as the latest developments in Ukraine, the EU’s foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton’s office announced yesterday.