Kurd rebels flee as Turkish jets bomb camps in north Iraq

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The Independent Online
On the Iraqi-Turkish border - Turkish forces solidified their hold on northern Iraq yesterday, but reports from the region suggested their quarry - separatist rebel Kurds - may have largely slipped their grasp.

Travellers crossing from Iraq said sounds of fighting at the start of the campaign against Kurdistan Workers party (PKK) fighters on Wednesday had given way to calm, amid tight security.

Earlier, airforce jets flew dozens of bombing runs from Turkish bases against suspected camps of the PKK, which is waging a 12-year insurgency for autonomy or independence from Turkey. The incursion has been the biggest in two years, involving at least 10,000 troops.

With the return of relative calm, travellers said troops and peshmerga guerrillas from the main Iraqi Kurdish militia were manning checkpoints in and around the Iraqi border town of Zakho.

Truck drivers crossing into Turkey said local people were angry that Massoud Barzani, head of Iraq's Kurdistan Democratic Party, was co-operating with the Turks to root out PKK bases.

"They have come again, with Barzani's support, but they will go home empty-handed," said one driver, summing up what he said was the mood of many Iraqis in the predominantly Kurdish north.

Others reported a big Turkish troop presence along the border with Syria, to the west of Zakho, apparently to block any attempt by the PKK to move in reinforcements or to mount hit-and-run raids.

There was a large number of soldiers between Zakho and the provincial capital Dohuk, and also around Sarsang, Ismailiye and Peshabur, the drivers said.

The anti-Baghdad Iraqi National Congress told Reuters that their contacts in the region indicated most of the PKK rebels had fled south, well out of range of Turkish patrols.

The incursion was carried out under a total "news black-out", with reporters barred from the area and calls blocked from Turkey to satellite telephones inside Iraq. Independent confirmation of casualty reports, as well as the full scope of operations, was impossible.

However, in a sign of growing confidence, the army reopened the border, closed since just before the attack, to deliveries of food and other supplies under United Nations auspices. Traders with Iraqi passports were also permitted to pass.

Military officials in Diyarbakir, headquarters for the anti-PKK fight, had earlier reported heavy fighting in the Sinaht Valley, east of Zakho.

They said one member of Turkey's Kurdish militia was killed and four were wounded in the clashes. State-paid village guards from the south- east often join the army on operations in Iraq.

The general staff said in a statement late on Thursday that 87 PKK rebels had been killed in Turkey's border provinces of Sirnak and Hakkari as they fled the Turkish advance from positions inside Iraq.

Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, an early advocate of a political solution to the PKK insurgency, said the army had been invited to help the biggest Iraqi Kurdish group in its own fight with the PKK. The Iraqi Kurds have yet to confirm this.

"One of the most important leaders in northern Iraq ... called upon our help while engaging in clashes with terrorist forces," he said. "Turkey is always respectful of Iraq's territorial integrity. This is a limited operation."