Downing Street said that the refugees faced a “desperate choice” between risking dying from a lack of food and water in temperatures of up to 122F (50C) on the mountainside or “descending into the barbaric hands of terrorists”.
Thousands of Yezidis flee the Sinjar mountains
Jonathan Krohn, from The Telegraph became the first Western journalist to reach the mountains and make contact with the refugees after flying onto Mount Sinjar in a relief helicopter.
He watched as hundreds of refugees ran toward the helicopter for one of the few deliveries of aid to make it to the mountain. The helicopter, which was sent by the Iraq Army Aviation force, dipped low, opened its gun bays and dropped water and food into the arms of the waiting refugees.
General Ahmed Ithwany, who led the mission, told The Telegraph “it is death valley. Up to 70 per cent of them are dead.”
Two American aid flights have also made it to the mountain, where they have dropped off more than 36,000 meals and 7,000 gallons of drinking water to help the refugees.
However, Iraqi officials said that much of the US aid had been “useless” because it was dropped from 15,000ft without parachutes and exploded oin impact.
Handfuls of refugees have managed to escape on the helicopters but many are being left behind because the craft are unable to land on the rocky mountainside.
On Saturday night the first British aid was due to be dropped from a C130 transporter plane on to the mountainside. The aid included water, tents, solar lighting and purification equipment.
But despite the international efforts there were growing concerns that the aid so far delivered would not be enough to stem the growing humanitarian crisis.
Mr Cameron said that he is working with the United States on a plan to help get people off the mountain, amid speculation that British military personnel could become directly involved in the rescue effort. A spokesman for Downing Street said: “The long-term solution will involve getting these people to safety.”
President Barack Obama indicated on Saturday that air strikes on Iraq could continue for months to try to stem the crisis, as he said that the West could not “look away” from the plight of “countless innocent people facing a massacre”.
He warned that jihadists based in Iraq could mount attacks on “Western targets” as he admitted that intelligence agencies and governments around the world had underestimated Isis, now known as Islamic State.
He insisted, however, that the US would not put troops in Iraq. “I have been very clear that we are not going to have US combat troops in Iraq again,” he said. “We are going to maintain that because we should have learned a lesson from our long and immensely costly incursion into Iraq.”
However, Lord Dannatt, the former head of the British Army, suggested that soldiers should be stationed in northern Iraq to help create a “safe area” for the refugees and said that Britain has a “moral obligation” to join the air strikes on Iraq.
He told The Telegraph: “In the face of a crisis of this scale, with the potential for so much human misery, this is not the moment for decision-makers to be on holiday. Parliament needs to be recalled and the West needs to face up to its responsibilities. We have to make sure that we do not come out of this wringing our hands at another terrible genocide and saying “next time, we must do better”. We are being put to the test now and history will be our judge.”
Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary, said in an article for The Telegraph that he supported the Government’s decision not to mount a military intervention.
However, he added that Britain should use the Iraq crisis to highlight the “growing persecution of Christians around the world”.
The situation in Iraq intensified yesterday amid reports that Islamic militants have threatened to execute more than 300 Yazidi families unless they convert to Islam.
The Yazidis, a religious group with links to Zoroastrianism, are a Kurdish-speaking minority regarded as “devil worshippers” by the Islamic State group.
The Islamic State forces continued to push towards the cities of Erbil in Kurdistan, where the US has an embassy, opposed by Kurdish Peshmurga forces.
The militants yesterday hoisted a black flag over Mosul dam, the largest in the country. There were reports yesterday that the militants had even sent in their own engineers to start repairs on it.
The US is likely to intensify its air strikes on the area around Erbil this week. The Pentagon yesterday released footage of a series of air strikes on Islamic State forces.
The first attacks on Islamic State fighters by the US came at 11.45am on Friday. Two US Navy FA-18 fighter jets from an aircraft carrier in the Gulf dropped a series of 500lb laser-guided bombs on a jihadist artillery unit firing on Kurdish troops defending Erbil, in the autonomous region of Kurdistan.
Later the same day, the US launched a second wave of air strikes, this time using an unmanned drone to destroy an IS mortar position, while at the same time four US Navy F/A-18 fighters destroyed a convoy of seven jihadist vehicles west of Erbil.
The air strikes, the first offensive action taken in Iraq by the US for nearly three years, came after a night of air drops to deliver humanitarian aid.
Escorted by two Navy fighter jets from USS George H W Bush, three transporter planes — one C-17 and two C-130s — dropped 72 bundles of supplies, including 28,000 meals and more than 1,500 gallons of water for those trapped in the searing temperatures of the Mount Sinjar with no food and water – though some of these exploded on impact with the ground.
Three American planes conducted a second airdrop of food and water early yesterday and by the afternoon a total of 36,224 ready-to-eat meals and 6,822 gallons of drinking water had been dropped by air as part of the ongoing relief operation.
That was followed by the departure of the first two consignments of British aid, which were being flown by C-130 transporter planes to the region after leaving RAF Brize Norton yesterday.
After a brief pause in Cyprus, the two planes will fly across Iraq and over Mount Sinjar, where their RAF crews are today expected to delivered bundles of desperately-needed aid from the air.
Speaking after a meeting of Cobra, the government’s emergency committee, Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, said that the air drops will only provide a short-term solution to the crisis in Iraq.
The British government has pledged £8 million in humanitarian aid to Iraq.
Mr Hammond said: “We can expect a continuing drumbeat of airdrop operations working in co-ordination with the US and potentially with others as well. More widely, we are looking at how to support this group of people and get them off that mountain, how we are going to facilitate their exit from what is a completely unacceptable situation.”
As well as military and humanitarian intervention, diplomats are also working to try to build a new government in Iraq.
During the phone conversation between Mr Obama and Mr Cameron, they agreed that Britain and the US will work together to establish an “inclusive” government in Iraq which gives millions of Sunnis a voice.
Mr Obama said yesterday that there is concern about jihadists gathering in Iraq and Syria who “might potentially launch attacks outside the region against Western and US targets”.
He added said that the US and its allies had failed to “appreciate” the weakness of the Iraqi security forces.
He said: “There is no doubt their advance has been more rapid than the intelligence estimate and the estimations of policymakers. Part of that is not a full appreciation of the degree to which the Iraqi security forces did not have the incentive or capacity to hold ground against an aggressive adversary.”
There was growing debate yesterday about whether Britain should mount a military intervention in Iraq following Lord Dannatt’s comments.