Under armed escort, mourner convoys reach Mexican village for U.S. family funerals

Under armed escort, mourner convoys reach Mexican village for U.S. family funerals
By Jose Luis Gonzalez

BAVISPE, Mexico (Reuters) – Convoys of vehicles carrying relatives of a group of American women and children slain by unknown gunmen snaked through the dark from as far away as the United States into a remote Mexican region ahead of funerals for the victims to be held on Thursday and Friday.

Members of breakaway Mormon communities that settled in Mexico decades ago, the three dual-nationality women and six children were ambushed in Sonora state on Monday, leading to U.S. President Donald Trump urging Mexico and the United States to “wage war’ together on the drug cartels.

Late on Monday, dozens of SUV-style vehicles and pickup trucks escorted by Mexican National Guard outliers rolled into the municipality of Bavispe, where funerals will be held for two of the women and their families on Thursday.

“We came prepared to sleep on the floor, in tents. Whatever is needed to support the families who died in this terrorist act,” said Alex LeBaron, a former Congressman and cousin of one of the women, Rhonita Miller.

The remains of Miller and her children, whose bodies were reduced to ash and bones when the car they were in was shot at and went up in flames, are due to be buried in another village called Colonia LeBaron on Friday.

Alex LeBaron, who was with the convoy, told Mexican radio that mourners had come from the United States and across Mexico, bringing food and mattresses for the journey.

The LeBaron family, which came to Mexico in the early 20th century, now claims to be made up of more than 5,000 members.

Authorities and relatives say the killings appeared to be the work of the Juarez and the Sinaloa Cartels, who fight for control of lucrative drug routes that run through the sparsely populated mountainous areas into the United States.

Mexico has unleashed its military against cartels since 2006 but despite the arrests or killings of leading traffickers, the campaign has failed to reduce violence. Instead, it has led to more killings as criminal groups fight among themselves.

The victims came from prominent local families, including the LeBarons, Millers and Langfords.

Nestled in the fertile valleys of the Sierra Madre mountains just a few hours drive south from the U.S. border, the oldest communities stem from the late 1800s, when upheaval over polygamy in the Utah-based church led to their founding.

The settlements have marriage ties to others in the United States.

(The story is refiled to add Thursday as one date of funerals in first paragraph)

(Reporting by Jose Luis Gonzalez; Additional reporting by Noe Torres; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

Nine Americans killed in Mexican ambush, Trump urges joint war on drug cartels

Nine Americans killed in Mexican ambush, Trump urges joint war on drug cartels
By Lizbeth Diaz

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Gunmen killed nine women and children in the bloodiest attack on Americans in Mexico for years, prompting U.S. President Donald Trump to offer to help the neighboring country wipe out drug cartels believed to be behind the ambush.

The nine people killed in Monday’s daytime attack at the border of Chihuahua and Sonora states belonged to the Mexican-American LeBaron, Langford, Miller and Johnson families, members of breakaway Mormon communities that settled in northern Mexico’s hills and plains decades ago.

A video posted on social media showed the charred and smoking remains of a vehicle riddled with bullet holes that was apparently carrying some of the victims on a dirt road when the attack occurred.

Christina Marie Langford Johnson and her daughter Faith Marie, part of a breakaway Mormon community who were attacked in Mexico, pose in an undated photo released by a family member November 5, 2019. Courtesy of Aaron Staddon via REUTERS

“This is for the record,” says a male voice speaking English in an American accent, off camera, choking with emotion.

“Nita and four of my grandchildren are burnt and shot up,” the man says, apparently referring to Rhonita LeBaron, one of the three women who died in the attack.

Reuters could not independently verify the video.

A relative, Julian LeBaron, called the incident a massacre and said some family members were burned alive.

In a text message to Reuters he wrote that four boys, two girls and three women were killed. Several children who fled the attack were lost for hours in the countryside before being found, he said.

He said it was unclear who carried out the attack.

“We don’t know why, though they had received indirect threats. We don’t know who did it,” he told Reuters.

Five wounded children were airlifted to a hospital in Tucson, Arizona, and a boy in critical condition was transferred to a Phoenix hospital, Lafe Langford, whose aunt and cousin were killed in the attack, said by phone from Louisiana.

Mexican Security Minister Alfonso Durazo said the nine, traveling in several SUVs, could have been victims of mistaken identity, given the high number of violent confrontations among warring drug gangs in the area.

But the LeBaron extended family has often been in conflict with drug traffickers in Chihuahua and other relatives of the victims said the killers surely knew who they were targeting.

“We’ve been here for more than 50 years. There’s no one who doesn’t know them. Whoever did this was aware. That’s the most terrifying,” Alex LeBaron, a relative, said in one of the villages inhabited by the extended family.

All of the dead were U.S. citizens, he told Reuters, and most also held dual citizenship with Mexico. They were attacked while driving on backroads in a convoy of cars containing the women along with 14 children, he said. Some were headed for Tucson airport to collect relatives.

State prosecutors in Sonora, where the dead were found in three separate locations, said ambushed family members had been planning to travel to the United States via Chihuahua.

The charred bodies of a woman and four children were found in a burnt Chevrolet Tahoe near the village of San Miguelito, while the corpses of a woman and two children were recovered in a white Suburban about 18 kilometers away, the statement said.

The body of the third woman was found about 15 meters (50 feet) from a Suburban near the Sonora-Chihuahua border.

Authorities are investigating whether a man arrested in Agua Prieta, Sonora with guns and ammunition could have been involved in the killings, prosecutors added.

The victims were members of the small community of La Mora, Sonora, set up decades ago by “pioneers” who broke away from the Mormon church, Langford said.

“They were targeted and they were killed on purpose,” said Langford, who grew up in La Mora and has a homestead there.

TIME TO ‘WAGE WAR’ -TRUMP

Trump has praised Lopez Obrador for combating cartel violence but said more needed to be done.

“This is the time for Mexico, with the help of the United States, to wage WAR on the drug cartels and wipe them off the face of the earth,” Trump said in a tweet reacting to the massacre.

Later, he and Lopez Obrador spoke by phone, with the U.S. president offering help to ensure the perpetrators face justice.

Prior to the call, Lopez Obrador rejected what he called any foreign government intervention.

Mexico has used its military in a war on drug cartels since 2006. Despite the arrest or killing of leading traffickers, the campaign has not succeeded in reducing drug violence and has led to more killings as criminal groups fight among themselves.

Falko Ernst, senior analyst for the International Crisis Group in Mexico, said Trump’s tweet suggests he may be gearing up to pressure Mexico over security, especially with his campaign under way for re-election in November 2020.

“If he throws in his whole leverage, as we’ve seen with migration, then there is very little the Mexican government can do to hold its ground,” Ernst said.

Northwestern Mexico has been home to small Mormon and Mormon-linked communities of U.S. origin since the late 19th century. The early Mormon settlers in Mexico fled the threat of arrest in the United States for practicing polygamy. The practice is observed by a shrinking number of Mormons in Mexico.

(Reporting by Lizbeth Diaz, Daina Beth Solomon and Andrew Hay; Additional reporting by Dave Graham, David Alire Garcia, Sharay Angulo, Adriana Barrera and Eric Beech; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, Howard Goller and Gerry Doyle)

Bangladesh sentences 16 to death for killing teenager in harassment case

Bangladesh sentences 16 to death for killing teenager in harassment case
DHAKA (Reuters) – The principal of a religious school in Bangladesh was among 16 people sentenced to death on Thursday for the murder of a teenage girl who refused to withdraw a complaint of sexual harassment against him, the public prosecutor said.

The perpetrators poured kerosene over Nusrat Jahan, 18, and set her on fire on the roof of her madrasa in April in the southeastern district of Feni. Police said in their charge-sheet the murder was carried out on the orders of the principal.

“The judgment proves that no one is above the law,” public prosecutor Hafez Ahmed told reporters after the court verdict.

He said the defense lawyers had tried unsuccessfully to establish that Jahan had committed suicide.

Defense lawyer Giasuddin Nannu said all the convicts will challenge the verdict in the High Court.

Jahan’s death sparked public outrage and mass demonstrations calling for her killers to be punished. She had faced pressure to withdraw a complaint to police in March accusing the school principal of attempted rape, her family said.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had met her family and vowed to bring the killers to justice.

Two female classmates and two local leaders of her party were among those convicted.

After the murder, the government instructed some 27,000 educational institutions to form committees to prevent sexual assaults.

“I can’t forget her for a moment. I still feel the pain that she went through,” mother Shirin Akhtar said as she burst into tears at her home following the verdict.

Jahan’s brother, Mahmudul Hasan Noman, demanded that the death sentences be carried out swiftly and sought protection for his family against reprisals.

“We live in fear. We were threatened even today in the courtroom,” Noman said.

Bangladesh has seen a dramatic rise in the number of rape cases in recent months, with 217 women and children raped in September, the highest in any single month since 2010, according to a report published by Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, a women’s rights group.

Many more cases go unreported because women fear being stigmatized. Rights activists attribute the increasing number of rapes to a lack of awareness, a culture of impunity, moral decadence, and people of influence protecting suspected rapists for political reasons.

Even when survivors file a complaint, prosecution is very rare and takes years to conclude.

“This verdict has set an example. It shows that with utmost sincerity we can ensure justice within our existing system,” said the group’s head, Ayesha Khanam.

(Reporting by Ruma Paul; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani & Simon Cameron-Moore)

Second Greek migrant camp in flames as arrivals continue to rise

By Karolina Tagaris

ATHENS (Reuters) – A fire in a severely overcrowded migrant camp in Greece forced hundreds of people into the streets, compounding their plight with more refugees arriving on Greek islands daily in what an aid group called a worsening “nightmare”.

Greece sent more police to the island of Samos on Tuesday after the fire, which occurred two weeks after a deadly blaze at a troubled camp on nearby Lesbos triggered protests there.

The Samos fire flared outside the camp on Monday night, firefighters said, before spreading inside. Earlier, three Syrians had been taken to hospital with stab wounds suffered in a fight with a group of Afghans, police said.

Several tents and housing containers were destroyed and 600 people were given shelter by aid groups, the Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) charity said. It estimates that half of the camp’s residents are women and children.

“This nightmare must end!” MSF wrote on Twitter. “Children and other vulnerable people must be evacuated from the Greek islands to safe accommodation.”

Greece is struggling with the biggest resurgence in refugee and migrant flows across the Aegean Sea from Turkey since a 2015 crisis when more than a million streamed into Europe, many of them entering the continent via Greece.

A regional governor, Costas Moutzouris, described the current situation on Greece’s frontline islands as “tragic” and called on the government to act.

More than half of refugees and migrants reaching European Union territory this year from the Middle East, Asia and Africa have been to Greece, according to United Nations data.

Athens has announced a stricter migration policy to deal with the crisis, including plans to deport 10,000 migrants by the end of next year. But efforts to ease overcrowding have borne little fruit as arrivals have surged to record levels.

The Samos camp, initially built for about 650 people, is unraveling under the weight of more than 5,700 asylum-seekers, according to the latest government data.

More than 12,000 people arrived in Greece in September, according to the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, the highest level in the three-and-a-half years since the EU agreed a deal with Turkey to seal the Aegean corridor to Europe.

EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos, addressing the Greek parliament on Tuesday, said Greece needed to do more to process its backlog of asylum claims.

He cautioned that Greece might not be able to deal with the potential refugee fallout from a military offensive launched by Turkey against Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria last week.

“The pressure currently being placed on populations on the Turkey-Syria border may force several thousand Syrians, or others living in the region, to want to cross the border into Turkey. And then what happens?” Avramopoulos said.

“That would be catastrophic for Greece, and for Europe.”

(Reporting by Karolina Tagaris; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

U.S. agency says Walmart likely discriminated against female workers: WSJ

(Reuters) – Walmart Inc likely discriminated against 178 female workers by paying less or denying promotions or both because of their gender, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said in memos reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, the newspaper said on Tuesday.

The agency urged Walmart and the women who filed complaints to come to a “just resolution,” which could include a settlement and changes to Walmart’s employment practices, after finding “reasonable cause” to believe there was gender discrimination, the newspaper said.

Walmart is the world’s largest retailer, and according to the newspaper has 1.5 million U.S. employees.

Randy Hargrove, a Walmart spokesman, said Walmart told the EEOC it was willing to engage in a “conciliatory process,” though in most cases the agency’s reasonable cause findings were “vague and non-specific.”

He also said the cases involved allegations that were more than 15 years old and were “not representative of the positive experiences millions of women have had working at Walmart.”

A lawyer who has acted as a co-counsel for women who filed complaints could not immediately be reached for comment.

In 2011, Walmart convinced the U.S. Supreme Court not to let roughly 1.5 million female workers complaining about pay and promotions sue in a class action, with a majority of justices concluding the women had too little in common to sue as a group.

More than 1,900 women have since pursued cases and filed charges with the EEOC accusing the Bentonville, Arkansas-based retailer of gender discrimination, the Journal said.

The charges involving the 178 women come from more than 30 states, and it is rare for the EEOC to pursue that many cases against one employer over such a wide geographic area, the newspaper added, citing labor lawyers.

An EEOC spokesman told the newspaper that the agency cannot discuss investigations or the administrative process until litigation is filed.

(Reporting by New York Newsroom; Editing by David Gregorio)

Saudi Arabia implements end to travel restrictions for Saudi women: agency

A Saudi woman walks with her luggage as she arrives at King Fahd International Airport in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, August 5, 2019. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

RIYADH (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia has begun allowing adult women to travel without permission and to exercise more control over family matters, state news agency SPA reported on Tuesday, following a flurry of royal decrees approving the changes.

Riyadh has long faced international criticism over the status of Saudi women. Rights groups say women are often treated as second-class citizens under rules requiring them to get the consent of a male guardian for important decisions throughout their entire lives, regardless of age.

The authorities have steadily chipped away at those restrictions in recent years, including ending a ban on women driving cars last year. A series of royal decrees published earlier this month further eroded that system as the kingdom comes under increased scrutiny over its human rights record.

The regulatory changes stipulated that a Saudi passport should be issued to any citizen who applies for it and that any person above the age of 21 does not need permission to travel.

They also granted women for the first time the right to register childbirth, marriage or divorce and to be issued official family documents and be eligible as a guardian to children who are minors.

“The passports and civil status departments and their branches in all regions of the kingdom have started to implement the amendments stipulated in the royal decree,” the SPA report said, citing an interior ministry source.

A Saudi newspaper reported that more than 1,000 women in the country’s Eastern Province had left Saudi Arabia on Monday without their guardian’s permission, in what appeared to be an early implementation of the new rules.

(Reporting by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Graphic: America’s economy and wages are cooling but not its female workforce

A female construction worker stands outside a construction site in Manhattan, New York, U.S., October 3, 2018. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

By Jason Lange

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Data released on Friday showed a return to strong job growth in the United States, allaying some fears the U.S. economy is on a short path to recession. But the data also reinforced the view that economic growth is slowing.

Here are five take-aways from a report by the U.S. Labor Department on U.S. employment during June.

SLOWING GROWTH

Every month the Labor Department surveys payrolls in the private sector to calculate how many hours employees across the nation worked. Seen as a proxy for economic growth, this index of the national work effort grew 0.2% in June, a rate near the muted gains clocked in recent months. That suggests the U.S. economy, which grew at a 3.1% annual rate in the first quarter of this year, could be cooling.

COOLER WAGE GROWTH?

Growth in private sector average hourly earnings accelerated throughout 2018 and through February of this year, when year-over-year growth hit the strongest rate since 2009 at 3.4%. June’s growth rate, however, was a more modest 3.1%. It is probably too early to tell if there has been a break in the upward trend.

Average earnings graphic

WAGE LAGGARDS

The manufacturing sector added 17,000 jobs in June after several months of weak growth or outright decline. Wage growth in the factory sector, however, has underperformed the national average. Wage growth has also been lower in the education and health jobs category tracked by the Labor Department.

leaders_laggards: https://tmsnrt.rs/2FUH8hw

LABOR FORCE INCREASE

A bright spot for the U.S. economy over the last few years has been the increase in the share of the population that either has a job or is looking for one. This so-called labor force participation rate ticked slightly higher in June, both for a key demographic of people of prime working age and for the general population. But the rate for prime-age workers has been mostly falling since January. This suggests the economy might be running lower on its supply of people available to work, which could depress future job growth.

participation rate graphic

WOMEN LEAD

In June, the participation rate fell for men of prime working age, while it rose for women. This is in line with the trend over the last few years. Indeed, the share of men who have jobs or are looking for one was slightly lower in June than it was in January 2017.

Women lead graphic 

(Reporting by Jason Lange; Editing by Dan Grebler)

Afghan working women still face perils at home and office

Anisa Mangal holds a photo of her daughter Mena Mangal, an Afghan journalist and parliamentary adviser, who was recently killed in Kabul, Afghanistan May 14, 2019. Picture taken May 14, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail

By Orooj Hakimi Rupam Jain

KABUL (Reuters) – Minutes before Mena Mangal, a prominent Afghan journalist and parliamentary adviser, was shot dead by two men in Kabul, she had slammed the door of her parent’s home after reminding them to pay the neighborhood shopkeeper 15 Afghanis (20 cents).

“Mena never forgot her duty towards our home and work. After years of struggle she had achieved success and happiness,” said Anisa Mangal, Mena’s mother, told Reuters, as she sat surrounded by her husband, four daughters, a son, grandchildren at her two-story home in eastern Kabul.. “She did the right things … worked very hard to become a professional woman.”

No-one has been arrested over the broad daylight killing, but police officials said Mangal’s family had filed a case against four men, including her ex-husband. “These four people are on the run but the police are trying to arrest them,” said Kabul police spokesman Firdaws Faramarz.

Mangal’s mother believes it was her dedication to home and career that got her killed. She accuses her daughter’s ex-husband of involvement in the murder because Mangal would not give up her job and continued to appear on television.

Reuters was unable to contact Mangal’s former husband. Calls to family members went unanswered.

The brazen attack on Mangal has drawn widespread condemnation — including from U.S. officials and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — and highlighted what activists say is the continuing plight of Afghan women, who still suffer high levels of sexual and domestic violence and discrimination.

Educated Afghan women, the torchbearer’s of a drive to improve women’s rights since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, say they still face hostility, be it from conservative family members or hardline Islamist groups, for pursuing professional and financial independence.

Earlier this month, for example, the Taliban, launched a deadly attack on the head office of U.S.-funded aid group Counterpart International in Kabul, citing the “intermixing” of women and men working at the site and its promotion of “western activities”.

At least nine people were killed and 20 were wounded in a siege that lasted for more than seven hours.

“The Taliban want to kill women who work with men. If I die, there will be no one to feed my parents and siblings,” said an Afghan woman who has worked at Counterpart for more than three years, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“If I sit at home will the Taliban come to pay the bills?”

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said its fighters targeted Counterpart because it was funded by U.S. aid agencies.

Women could study and work, he said, but the intermingling of the genders ought to be kept in check in Afghanistan.

PRICE OF FREEDOM

Though many hardships remain, access to public life has improved for Afghan women since U.S.-backed forces ousted the Taliban, especially in cities such as Kabul, where tens of thousands now work outside the home.

But for many, concerns about the hazards of going out to a job extend beyond their own safety.

Until April, thousands of Afghan women now working for the government were happy to bring their children to the office. The daycare center attached to every government building provided reassurance their children were close by and safe.

The centers were originally established in 1945 to encourage women into the workforce but closed under the Taliban, who ruled from 1996 to 2001 and did not allow women to go to school or work, nor walk on the street without being accompanied by a male relative and wearing the all-enveloping burqa.

Now reopened, the government runs more than 370 creches where around 17,000 children aged from 3 months to 5 years are provided with milk, food, cots, toys and education at subsidized rates.

“Having a daycare center next to my office is a blessing, I feed my child after every two hours and get back to work without any stress,” said Sadia Seddiqi, an HR official at a government ministry.

But this sense of security changed in April after a suicide bomber and gunmen belonging to the Islamic State group attacked the Afghan communications ministry in central Kabul.

About a dozen people were killed during the attack. Police evacuated about 100 children along with 2,800 employees from the complex.

Harrowing TV pictures of children, teachers, and mothers screaming for hours after every gunshot inside the ministry building has forced hundreds of mothers to re-think their childcare.

Meena Ahmadi, who works at the communications ministry, said several of her colleagues do not bring their kids to daycare after the attack and some of them had chosen to resign.

“I am afraid of coming to the office,” she said. “I get upset when I remember my colleagues who were killed. The attack has impacted my child too.”

(Reporting by Orooj Hakimi and Rupam Jain; Abdul Qadir Sediqi; Editing by Alex Richardson)

Pope: Church should admit history of abuse of women, male domination

Pope Francis looks on as he addresses reporters aboard the plane bringing him back following a two-day trip to Morocco March 31, 2019. Alberto Pizzoli/Pool via REUTERS

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Pope Francis said on Tuesday the Catholic Church had to acknowledge a history of male domination and sexual abuse of women and children and repair its reputation among young people or risk becoming “a museum”.

But, in a major document in which he mentioned an array of scandals and again admitted significant failings by clergy, he also said the Church “could not agree with everything some feminist groups propose,” a clear reference to the Church’s ban on a female priesthood.

The pope is grappling with criticism over the Church’s response to a decades-long clerical sexual abuse crisis that has gravely damaged its standing around the globe and seen it pay out billions of dollars in compensation.

Francis made his comment in a 50-page “Apostolic Exhortation” about a month-long meeting of bishops in October on the role of young people in the 1.3 billion-member Church.

Francis, 82, urged young people not to be disillusioned by the sexual abuse scandal, but to work with the overwhelming majority of priests and other clergy faithful to their vocation.

He said clergy sexual abuse was “a tragedy” and asked young people to help the Church in “this dark moment”.

“A living Church can look back on history and acknowledge a fair share of male authoritarianism, domination, various forms of enslavement, abuse and sexist violence,” the pontiff said.

“With this outlook, she can support the call to respect women’s rights, and offer convinced support for greater reciprocity between males and females, while not agreeing with everything some feminist groups propose,” he said.

Some women’s groups seek a female priesthood. The Church has ruled this out, arguing Jesus chose only men as his apostles.

WINNING BACK TRUST

In the final document of their synod last year, bishops recommended “that everyone be made more aware of the urgency of an inevitable change” in the role of women in the Church, but the pope did not directly address that on Tuesday.

His document also did not address demands by women participants at the synod that they be allowed to vote during such meetings in the future.

Francis acknowledged the Church had to win back many young people who see it as insignificant in their lives or a nuisance.

He said such a view of the Church can “have serious and understandable reasons: sexual and financial scandals; a clergy ill-prepared to engage effectively with the sensitivities of the young.”

The Church had to keep and attract young people by better explaining its doctrine, he said.

“A Church always on the defensive, which loses her humility and stops listening to others, which leaves no room for questions, loses her youth and turns into a museum,” he said.

And while he said the Church should be “attentive to the legitimate claims of those women who seek greater justice and equality” and that young people had complained of a “lack of leading female role models,” he offered no new ideas. Only a handful of women hold positions of authority in the Vatican.

This month the all-female staff of the Vatican newspaper’s monthly magazine on women’s issues resigned, saying a new editor sought to put them “under direct male control”.

Recent stories in the magazine include one on sexual abuse of nuns by priests. The editor has denied their accusations.

(Reporting By Philip Pullella, Editing by William Maclean and Jon Boyle)

Mass grave found in last Islamic State bastion: SDF

FILE PHOTO: Buses that carry civilians are seen parked near Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria February 11, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said/File Photo

By Ellen Francis

DEIR AL-ZOR PROVINCE, Syria (Reuters) – A mass grave containing the bodies of dozens of people killed by Islamic State, including many women, has been found in territory recently seized by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an SDF official said on Thursday.

The SDF is poised to wipe out the last vestige of Islamic State’s territorial rule at the besieged village of Baghouz near the Iraqi border. But the operation has been held up as the SDF seeks to evacuate thousands of civilians.

“We will announce the complete victory over Daesh (Islamic State) in a week,” SDF commander-in-chief Mazloum Kobani said in a video released by the SDF on Thursday, speaking during a meeting with a group of SDF fighters freed from IS captivity.

It was not immediately clear when the video was filmed.

The SDF announced on Thursday it had freed 24 of its fighters from the jihadist group.

The Islamic State (IS) enclave at Baghouz, a tiny area on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River, is the last populated territory held by the jihadists who have been steadily driven by an array of enemies from swathes of land they once held.

Though the fall of Baghouz will mark a milestone in the campaign against IS, the group is still seen as a security threat, using guerrilla tactics and still holding some territory in a remote area west of the Euphrates River.

The mass grave was found around one week ago in an area of Baghouz already seized from IS and is still being excavated, SDF commander Adnan Afrin told Reuters. It was not clear when the people had been killed.

The SDF was seeking to confirm whether the bodies, most of them decapitated, were those of Yazidi sect members enslaved by IS, he said, adding: “They were slaughtered.”

Thousands of members of the minority Yazidi sect from Iraq were forced into sexual slavery by IS when they surged across the border in 2014 and seized swathes of territory.

More than 3,000 other Yazidis were killed in an onslaught the United Nations later described as genocidal, which prompted the first U.S. air strikes against IS. Thousands more fled on foot and many remain displaced more than four years later.

CAVES AND TUNNELS

Some 40,000 people have crossed from the jihadists’ diminishing territory in the last three months as the U.S.-backed SDF sought to finish off the group. The numbers of people, who are still pouring out of Baghouz, have surpassed initial estimates.

Afrin said many of the people coming out of Baghouz had been underground in caves and tunnels.

The SDF has said it wants to evacuate civilians inside Baghouz before storming it or forcing the surrender of the remaining jihadists, who the SDF has said are mostly foreigners.

The U.S.-led coalition said Baghouz had been “more crowded with both civilians and fighters than expected”.

“The overflow during the lull in battle has been difficult for the SDF and they have responded to everything well …,” said Colonel Sean Ryan, the coalition spokesman.

Afrin said the 24 fighters who were announced freed on Thursday were mostly captured by IS during the Deir al-Zor campaign and were rescued by its special forces based on intelligence.

The SDF has said several hundred jihadists are believed to be holed up in Baghouz, a cluster of hamlets surrounded by farmland on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River.

Afrin said there had been no negotiations with IS but “in the future it is possible they will request negotiations to surrender”. He said IS was still holding hostages inside Baghouz, both civilians and SDF fighters.

(Additional reporting by Rodi Said in Deir al-Zor, Omar Fahmy in Cairo and Tom Perry in Beirut; Writing by Stephen Kalin/Tom Perry; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Gareth Jones)