KIRKUK, Iraq, April 8 (UPI) -- Islamic State militants released more than 200 Yazidi women, children and elderly who had been held captive since August, Iraqi officials said Wednesday.
The captives were handed over to Kurdish military forces, the Peshmerga, about 30 miles southwest of Kirkuk. The hostages had been held in Mosul since the community was attacked by IS militants last year, forcing several from their homes and into starvation as they were cut off and surrounded on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq.
Many of the young, female Yazidis captured were taken as war brides or sex slaves.
Yazidi is a religious sect that incorporates elements of different faiths. There are about 500,000 Yazidi worldwide, most live in Iraq, and they are often stigmatized because they are seen as devil worshipers by some religious groups.
It's unclear what led to the release of the captives, though Qassim Hussein Burgez, a Yazidi leader, speculated it was because most of them were infirm.
"If you look at the kind of people released today, you'll notice handicapped, elderly, sick ones and even some mentally disabled people," Burgez told the Wall Street Journal. "I believe that Islamic State released the Yazidis today because it was helpless to care for them."
Another leader, Zuhair Khallo, said the IS militants could be trying to appear compassionate so they will be exonerated if the terror group is defeated by Iraqi forces.
"When they retake Mosul, it would be difficult for these people to defend themselves or act innocent," Khallo said. "So they might say that they are a part of releasing these kidnapped people to make them seem less brutal."
This isn't the first time IS -- also identified by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL -- has released Yazidi captives. Several hundred were let go in January.