The world must take "all possible measures" to prevent a massacre of minorities in Iraq, United Nations human rights experts warned yesterday as the UK continued aid drops but resisted calls for military intervention.
With up to 40,000 Yazidis still trapped on a sweltering mountainside by extremist forces of the self-styled Islamic State (IS), the panel warned that a mass atrocity or even genocide could take place "within days or hours".
Around a quarter of a million Iraqis from religious minorities have already fled their homes in the face of "convert or die" ultimatums from the advancing militants, with women executed or taken as slaves and teenagers sexually assaulted, their stark report concluded.
The UN's special rapporteur on minority issues, Rita Izsak, urged: "All possible measures must be taken urgently to avoid a mass atrocity and potential genocide within days or hours – civilians need to be protected on the ground and escorted out of situations of extreme peril."
Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond chaired another meeting of the Government's emergency committee Cobra yesterday to discuss the next stage of Britain's response to the crisis.
Several RAF Tornado jets set off from RAF Marham in Norfolk yesterday afternoon to travel to a "pre-position", from where they will fly to northern Iraq to provide improved surveillance of the situation on the ground.
The jets, fitted with Litening III targeting and surveillance pods, will be able to fly over the crisis area to provide intelligence and help with the delivery of humanitarian aid.
It has also been reported that the Government is considering sending Chinook helicopters to the area to help the aid mission.
On Monday night, RAF aircraft dropped a second round of "essential supplies" to some of those trapped on Mount Sinjar – after a previous attempt had to be abandoned for fear it could hurt those on the ground.
A total of three air drops have been carried out – one on Saturday and two on Monday night – following the aborted attempt in the early hours of Monday morning.
The Department for International Development (DfID) said latest drops included 3,180 reusable water purification containers filled with 15,900 litres of clean water and 816 solar lamps that can also be used to charge mobile phones.
And Downing Street has indicated that the Government is also looking at how it can play a role in getting equipment to Kurdish forces so they are better able to counter IS, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis).
But voices continued to be raised in favour of a more direct military intervention – and for MPs to be recalled from their summer break to debate and vote on it.
Tory MP Mark Pritchard became the latest to join politicians and former military chiefs in urging a stronger response, including targeted air strikes and drone attacks – but falling short of sending ground forces back to the country.
He predicted a recalled Commons would vote in favour of the escalation.
"The international community can pour as much aid into the region as its likes," he wrote for the PoliticsHome website. But unless Islamic State fighters are killed and removed from the battlefield, they will go on killing and committing further atrocities. This intervention needs to be in an unequivocal combat role, not just in an intelligence, surveillance and targeting role."
US air strikes on Islamic State positions over recent days have helped Kurdish peshmerga fighters defending Irbil – the capital of the autonomous northern region – to regain some territory from the Islamic State forces, including two towns.
Mr Pritchard said the different circumstances suggested there would be no repeat of MPs' refusal last year to endorse military intervention in Syria.
"I suspect this time Parliament would vote for decisive, precision, and targeted military action in Iraq, with clearly defined rules of engagement."
One of Britain's most senior generals accused the "commitment-phobic" Government of being "terrified" of intervening in the Iraq crisis before next year's general election.
General Sir Richard Shirreff told The Times: "The longer we sit on our hands and prevaricate, the more dangerous the situation is going to become."
But speaking after Monday's Cobra meeting, Mr Hammond rejected calls for Parliament to be recalled to discuss the crisis and said there were no plans for British military involvement. "We don't envisage a combat role at the present time," he said.
Prime Minister David Cameron is on a family holiday in Portugal but due back in No 10 later this week. Downing Street said he was "very much engaged" with the situation despite being abroad and a recall of Parliament was "not on the cards".
Christof Heyns, the UN's special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, said the international community "must do all in their power to support those on the ground with the capacity to protect lives".