Exodus starts Kurd panic

The evacuation of 5,000 Kurds who worked with US aid agencies from northern Iraq this week has started a panic among the employees of non-American aid agencies. They are fearful of the return of Saddam Hussein. Isolated in Iraqi Kurdistan since Iraqi tanks intervened in August the organisations, which administered one of the largest aid progammes in the world, are close to collapse.

"We may have to close," said Roger Briottet, director of the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), a British-based agency which is helping to clear the 10 to 20 million mines laid in Kurdistan during the Iran-Iraq war. These have already killed more than 2,000 people in the last five years. Mr Briottet said: "The 500 local people we employ are very frightened since the US decided to evacuate."

An equally serious problem is that Turkey has closed its border to people and equipment crossing into northern Iraq. Turkey says restrictions have been imposed because of concern about the activities of some aid organisations.

Mr Briottet says MAG has not been able to send mine experts or mine detectors into northern Iraq. The specialists it already has there - mainly former British army experts - are becoming exhausted and detectors already in place are too old to use safely. Turkey will not allow mine detectors into Iraq because they are regarded as military equipment.

During the eight years of the Iran-Iraq war more than 2,200 minefields were laid in Iraqi Kurdistan, mostly along the border with Iran.

In the aftermath of the Gulf war, the Kurdish uprising in 1991 and the withdrawal of Iraqi government forces from its three northern provinces, Western aid agencies moved in strength into Kurdistan. They are seen by Baghdad as foreign intruders who imperilled Iraqi sovereignty.

Kurds and Iraqis who work for foreign agencies in Kurdistan have been deeply worried that Saddam Hussein will return permanently to the region after his successful intervention in the Kurdish civil war at the end of August. They believe they will then be singled out for punishment. The US has already evacuated 2,700 Iraqis and Kurds who worked directly or indirectly for the US government.

Britain and other European countries have refused to allow immigration by Iraqis associated with their aid programmes.

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