Kurdish guns clash despite ceasefire

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Degala (Reuter) - Rival Kurdish militias clashed for five hours near a northern Iraqi town yesterday in spite of a United States-brokered ceasefire that appeared to have silenced the guns in the rest of the mountainous region.

Witnesses said the Baghdad-backed Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) traded shots near Degala after the PUK launched an attack in mid-morning. But fighting halted in the afternoon. "We would have brought in our heavy weapons but the PUK stopped," a KDP commander said.

The PUK had fired rockets and artillery at KDP positions near the KDP- held Degala, and drew heavy machine-gun fire in response. Neither group advanced from their positions.

The US State Department announced that the groups had agreed to observe a ceasefire from midnight last Wednesday. A US envoy, Robert Pelletreau, got an agreement to halt the fighting from the two factions' leaders at separate meetings in Turkey this week. The clashes have damaged US interests in northern Iraq and threatened to draw in Iraq and Iran.

Iraqi troops and tanks helped the KDP capture the city of Arbil, in northern Iraq, from the PUK on 31 August, prompting retaliatory US missile strikes against Iraqi military targets.

Journalists who have been all over the Kurdish region for a week said there is no evidence to support the KDP's claims of Iranian involvement. But they have seen no evidence to back the PUK's claims that Iraqi troops are helping the KDP.

Mr Pelletreau hammered out the truce with the Kurdish leaders after a series of meetings. He was reported to be leaving Turkey yesterday for the Gulf region on what US officials said was a long-planned visit.

Baghdad has meanwhile accused the US of not being serious in finding a solution to the Kurdish fighting in the north. "America doesn't want northern Iraq to be an oasis of security, stability and prosperity, as it used to be during the self-rule days under Baghdad's government," the Iraqi official newspaper al-Jumhuriya said last Wednesday.