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Kurdish civilians flee Turks' onslaught

Turkey, promising to withdraw from northern Iraq in a few weeks, is trying to show that the foray of 35,000 troops across the border has seriously damaged bases and supply lines of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) guerrillas. Iraqi Kurdish leaders say there has been little fighting and that armed men held by Turkish forces as PKK fighters are villagers who usually carry guns for protection.

Ankara insists it has precise information. "Our intelligence services know where their camps are and our bombing raids are directed at supply depots," said Murat Ersavci, adviser to the Prime Minister, Tansu Ciller. But a military spokesman said no rebels had been captured alive, though the army contends that more than 128 have been killed, 33 of whom died yesterday, with 14 Turkish soldiers.

A UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesman, Rupert Colville, said it was deeply concerned over the rights of Kurds in areas of northern Iraq occupied by Turkish troops. Hundreds of refugees had fled the northern Iraqi city of Zakho - in the zone held by the Turkish army - to camps farther south near Atrush, where 9,000 people were crowded. Reporters in Dergale, northern Iraq, said Turkish planes bombed three Kurdish mountain villages 20 miles south of the Turkish border, destroying homes.

A Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman, Ferhat Ataman, denied reports that troops were looting and destroying Kurdish villages. He and Mrs Ciller said separately that the intervention was designed only "to fill the power- vacuum" in northern Iraq. In the face of mounting world reaction, notably from the European Union, Turkey has yet to say when it will withdraw.Diplomats in Ankara said they expected the Turks to be out by the middle of next month.

Turkey's ambassador to Britain, Candemir Onhon, warned journalists in London yesterday against seeking a timetable for withdrawal. "The aim [of the operation] is the annihilation of the PKK,'' he said. ``Immediately after the aim is reached, Turkish security forces will withdraw. It is dangerous to predict how long it will take. It is to Turkey's advantage to keep this as short time as possible.''

Hoshyar Zebari, a spokesman for the Kurdish Democratic Party, the largest Iraqi Kurdish organisation, said that in a housing complex outside Zakho "all able-bodied men were separated from the others and those with weapons arrested". In this area everyone was armed, so the detentions were purely for the television cameras.

Independent observers believe the PKK inside Turkey has been badly hit but they warned that it could shift its attacks to the cities.

Mr Ersavci, insisting the PKK was close to defeat, said: "We have almost finished them in Turkey." He believed that wrecking the guerrillas' logistics - aerial photographs showed the PKK had medium-heavy weapons such as anti- aircraft guns - would prevent them regrouping for at least six months.

The media support the intervention: overt opposition to the government's policy of repressing all signs of Kurdish separatism led in the past to charges of treason.

Mr Ersavci said Ms Ciller would nevertheless press on with "a partial amnesty for writers and other people who are in jail because of the military anti-terrorist laws". A motive for the intervention is to show Ms Ciller can be tough and decisive. It has pushed into the background controversy over the death of more than 15 people belonging to the Alawite minority in rioting in Istanbul a fortnight ago. And it underlines the government is doing something about the war with Kurds in south-east Turkey in which at least 15,000 people have died since 1984. It has also sent a number of messages to Turkey's neighbours. Hassan Jamal, a correspondent on Sabah newspaper with specialist knowledge of the area where fighting is going on, said Turkey was "telling the Iraqi Kurds that they cannot form a Kurdish state or provide a haven for the PKK". Ankara may also be sending a message to Washington that if it wants to keep an embargo on Iraq, the price of co-operation is American acquiescence in Turkish military intervention in northern Iraq.

Yesterday the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, said that Washington would monitor the attack on a daily basis in order to ensure that Ankara lived up to promises to respect human rights.