A rescue mission in Iraq involving the UK military is now less likely after a US special forces operation discovered that thousands of refugees had managed to escape from the mountainside where they had been trapped.
British aircraft will continue to drop aid to the remaining Yazidis on Mount Sinjar, but the US mission found there were only a few thousand remaining on the mountainside and they were in better condition than had been feared.
Prime Minister David Cameron, in the West Country yesterday, said it was "good news" but said the UK had armed forces assets in place to "help out in the right way" if the situation demanded it.
He confirmed that an RAF Tornado jet equipped with sophisticated surveillance equipment had flown over the area overnight, while further aid drops had also taken place. Chinook helicopters, which could be used to transport personnel or pick up refugees stranded on the mountain by Islamic State (IS) forces, had also arrived at a base in Cyprus.
Speaking at the UK Disaster Response Operations Centre at Cotswold Airport in Kemble, Gloucestershire, he said: "There does seem to be some good news and that is the American-led scouting operation has found fewer people on the mountainside than expected. Also we see that the UK aid drops have made a difference and have got through to people.
"It's good news that there are fewer people there and they are in better condition than expected. What our plans need to do is to make sure that we have got the assets in place to help out in the right way and that's why last night one of our Tornados was gathering information about the situation, that's why it's important our Chinooks are in place and available if needed. Our plans need to be flexible enough to respond to this situation."
International Development Secretary Justine Greening said a combination of US air strikes and resistance from Kurdish fighters had helped create an escape route for the refugees, who fled to Sinjar in the face of Islamic State forces. Ms Greening, who refused to comment on reports that elite British SAS troops were on the ground in Iraq, said an evacuation from Mount Sinjar had not been ruled out but was less likely as a result of the US assessment.
She told the BBC: "The US has been clear overnight that although it is saying an evacuation approach is less likely, that is still an option that is on the table.
"The Prime Minister has been very clear that if an evacuation does take place, we will play our role in that. So that option is still there."
Mr Cameron, who will chair a meeting of Whitehall's Cobra emergency committee to discuss the crisis, said the Government would ''respond to the situation as it develops".
"We need to make sure we have good information about how many people there are, how many need to leave, how well they can get to a place of safety," he said. "Our plans have got to be flexible enough to help those people, working with allies like the Kurds, to make sure we can help people in need.
"This is a complicated humanitarian mission and I think one of the things we are definitely going to need to do is to get more aid into the refugee camps like the camp at Dohuk which I think is going to be very key to this operation and that's one of the reasons I'll be chairing another meeting of the Cobra committee this morning to make sure that we're co-ordinating with our allies and working with people on the ground to make sure that aid gets through to those who are desperately in need."
A Downing Street source indicated that the US assessment is that the number of Yazidis remaining on Mount Sinjar is in the "low thousands", with about 1,000 escaping the mountain every day.
Mr Cameron said it was "very difficult" to gain correct information from the ground due to the fighting taking place.
During the visit, Mr Cameron viewed a £24 solar powered lamp – more than 1,000 of which have already been dropped in Iraq – and a water purification container, which pumps clean water by hand.
The United Nations has declared the situation in Iraq to be a "level 3 emergency" – the highest rating it gives to crises.
The Department for International Development (DfID) is providing funding for the International Rescue Committee (IRC) to provide a month's worth of water and medicine for 12,000 refugees who escaped from Sinjar and made it to a refugee camp across the Syrian border.
North Wiltshire MP James Gray, who welcomed Mr Cameron to the aid depot at Kemble, said: "I was delighted that the Prime Minister came down to North Wiltshire this morning to see the fantastic work which the DfID UK Aid base are doing in supplying vital humanitarian relief in Iraq."