Mass graves of around 1,700 soldiers are believed to have been uncovered by forensic teams in Tikrit, Iraq, after the city was recently liberated from terror group ISIS. A government spokesman said that the soldiers were killed sometime in 2014.
"We dug up the first mass grave site today (Monday). Until now we found at least 20 bodies. Initial indications show indisputably that they were from the Speicher victims," Khalid al-Atbi, an Iraqi health official, told Reuters.
He added: "It was a heartbreaking scene. We couldn't prevent ourselves from breaking down in tears. What savage barbarian could kill 1,700 persons in cold blood?"
The Associated Press noted that the soldiers are believed to have been captured in June as they were trying to flee the air base at Camp Speicher, while ISIS militants advanced on key cities and towns across the north and west of Iraq.
The terror group has carried out mass killings and beheadings recorded on video across Iraq and Syria in its mission to establish an Islamic caliphate. While the U.S. and a broad coalition of allies has been hitting back against ISIS with air strikes, it has been Iraqi and Syrian soldiers who have fought back against the jihadis on the ground.
ISIS, which has made heavy use of social media to post graphic photo and videos of the executions it has carried out, sent out photos last year of the captured Iraqi soldiers being massacred.
After a government operation helped by allied Sunni and Shiite fighters managed to free Tikrit, forensic teams began investigating on Monday eight main locations inside the presidential palaces complex where much of the killing is believed to have taken place.
Kamil Amin, the spokesman of Iraq's Human Rights Ministry, revealed that this investigation led to the grizzly discovery, and said that DNA samples have already been taken from close to 85 percent of the victims' families, which will be used for lab tests to confirm the identities of the bodies.
One of the survivors of the massacre said that he survived because he was covered in the blood of his fellow soldiers, and had pretended to be dead.
"The fourth bullet was fired, but I wasn't hit. The fifth bullet killed the man next to me. Playing dead, I fell to the ground. I was covered by the blood of my colleagues and I rolled down into the valley," the man said.
CNN's Arwa Damon confirmed the news, and reported seeing nine bodies recovered by the search teams at one of the excavation sites.
The bodies were decomposed, Damon added, and noted that some had their hands bound.
Groups such as Human Rights Watch have described the discovery as the "Speicher Massacre," which is one of the largest recorded incidents of mass-murder carried out by ISIS at a single site.
In 2014, Human Rights Watch used satellite imagery and witness testimony to identify a number of the mass graves inside the presidential palace complex in the war-torn city.