Kurdish forces free oil workers in Kirkuk

Iraqi Kurdish forces Sunday found and freed workers who had gone missing a day earlier when ISISinsurgents seized a small crude oil station near the northern city of Kirkuk, the provincial governor and a local councilman said.

The development came as ISIS militants press ahead with their offensive in the Kirkuk area after suffering last week a setback in Syria, when they withdrew from the town of Ain al-Arab on the Turkish border.

The Kurds retook the crude oil separation unit in Khabbaz Saturday evening but had been unable to immediately determine the fate of the employees, whom they found in an underground room.

“All of them were rescued and they are all safe,” Kirkuk Governor Najmaldin Karim told Reuters by phone, denying reports that some of the workers had been taken hostage.

Earlier reports said 15 workers had gone missing, but provincial councilman Ali Mehdi said the number could be as high as 25. Mehdi confirmed that the workers had all been freed.

One senior Kurdish commander was killed in Saturday’s attack, the most serious assault on Kirkuk since the summer.

ISIS militants seized at least four small oil fields when they overran large areas of northern Iraq last summer and began selling crude oil and gasoline.

Khabbaz is a small oil field 20 kilometers southwest of Kirkuk with a maximum production capacity of 15,000 barrels per day. It was producing around 10,000 bpd before the attack.

The U.S. and its allies have carried out 26 airstrikes in Iraq and eight in Syria since Saturday in continued attacks on ISIS targets, the U.S. military said.

The bulk of the strikes were near Kirkuk, while in Syria most of the strikes were near Ain al-Arab, said a statement by the U.S. Combined Joint Task Force.

Separately, ISIS beheaded an Iraqi police officer and a soldier, the latest in a long series of atrocities committed by the jihadis, according to pictures posted online Sunday.

In one photo, a blindfolded man said to be a police lieutenant colonel kneels in a street in front of a row of gunmen.

A masked militant is then shown beheading the victim with a machete, after which his severed head is placed atop his body and the machete driven into his back.

Another photo shows an overweight masked militant apparently struggling to behead a man identified as a captured Iraqi soldier.

The authenticity of the photos could not be independently confirmed.