Confusion reigns as US backs down from evacuating Yazidis

What happens to Cameron's promise to 'get these people off that mountain'? Er… nothing, it seems

Column LAST UPDATED AT 11:34 ON Thu 14 Aug 2014

David Cameron's dramatic plan to airlift besieged Yazidi refugees off Mount Sinjar has been thrown into confusion by the US Pentagon's announcement overnight that "an evacuation is far less likely" because there are apparently fewer refugees in need of help than was thought.

After flying back from his ten-day holiday in Portugal, Cameron chaired a Cobra meeting in Downing Street yesterday and declared: "We need a plan to get these people off the mountain." The Times splashed on a report that the SAS were already on the ground in the area, despite the White House and Downing Street ruling out "boots on the ground".

Today, those plans have been put on hold after a team of US soldiers and aid experts landed on the mountain and reported that the Yazidis hiding there from the Islamic State were in better shape than they had expected, and there were fewer of them. 

The Pentagon said the dramatic shift was due in part to humanitarian aid drops, air strikes on the IS, the efforts of Kurdish peshmerga forces and “the ability of thousands of Yazidis to evacuate the mountain each night over the last several days”.

Justine Greening, the UK Secretary of State for International Development, appeared wrong-footed on Radio 4's Today programme when she was pressed by BBC presenter Evan Davis to give a British assessment of the extent of the humanitarian crisis on the mountain. 

Davis asked her what reports had been received from the RAF Tornado fighters that reportedly had been carrying out surveillance operations over Mount Sinjar.

Greening refused to comment on "military operations". But she gave the clear impression that the UK is relying on US military advice rather than that of its own forces or indeed the press and television reporters from both sides of the Atlantic who have been covering the suffering of the Yazidi refugees. 

All of which leaves Cameron's "something must be done" rhetoric of yesterday looking like a desperate attempt to prove he was on top of the situation after being criticised for remaining on holiday while the Yazidis' plight at the hands of the Islamic State was unfolding. 

Greening was accused of being "mean" after she appeared to rule out on the Today programme any plan to bring Yazidi refugees to Britain. 

She said one million people had been displaced, and the focus was now on providing tents and food at a camp in Syria - itself a war zone where the IS run riot - where 10,000 had walked 14 miles to escape. She said the refugees would have to spend the coming winter there, which is likely to dismay the refugees seeking more permanent shelter

Former Labour MP Denis MacShane tweeted: "Bizarre int [interview] with DfID minister who says she can't/won't say what Gov knows abt Iraq. Now she is saying No to any refugees coming here. Mean."

The question now facing the UK government is what does it intend to do with the airpower it has sent to RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, its forward base for mounting any operations over Iraq?

The government has refused to give details of exactly how many aircraft it has sent to Akrotori, but a reporter for British Forces Radio in Cyprus said two helicopters - possibly the Chinooks promised by Cameron - and three more Tornado ground attack GR4 jets arrived last night at Akrotiri. Also, two Hercules heavy lift planes carried out drops of more aid overnight over northern Iraq. Local Akrotiri residents reported hearing jets taking off this morning.

Greening said the UK aid drops would continue but it appears the plan for an evacuation of the Yazidis is almost certainly shelved. 

Answers could be forced out of ministers if the Commons were sitting. But Cameron is refusing to budge on a recall of Parliament from its summer recess and Labour leader Ed Miliband seems no keener to back demands for a recall from MPs who would like Britain to step up to the plate - not just to help the refugees, but to help put a stop to the Islamic State's murderous campaign of terror. 

Cameron continues to resist demands for Britain to join the US in the air-strikes against the IS, who are continuing to seize strategically important assets in Iraq and Syria.

The Commons is not due to sit until 1 September. MPs have another 18 days to go before they can put Cameron and ministers like Greening on the spot to provide some coherent answers. ·