Turkish Kurds flee to divided brethren in Iraq

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DIVIDED and vulnerable yet again, the Kurds are moving back into the Middle East's killing fields. A civil war is looming in northern Iraq, dozens of Turkish Kurd guerrillas are dying each day and refugees have started to trickle once more over the borders that separate their 20 million people.

The worst and least-noticed fighting was in south-eastern Turkey, where a Kurdish separatist insurgency has been steadily worsening since 1984. Security forces killed more than 100 guerrillas of the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in the past 48 hours, official statements said.

Turkish warplanes also struck deep into northern Iraq, hitting the PKK base at Zaleh close to the Iranian border for the second time this year. Kurdish sources said there were no casualties.

Air strikes inside Turkey and anti-guerrilla actions around border villages have driven about 4,500 Turkish Kurds to take refuge in northern Iraq. Ankara claimed their flight was a rebel ploy to attract attention, but Western diplomats said the majority were terrified refugees now needing help in temporary camps.

The movement of Turkish Kurd refugees started when Turkish security forces went on the offensive in early spring. It echoes the post-Gulf war events of 1991, when an offensive by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein forced 1.5 million Iraqi Kurds to take refuge in Turkey and Iran.

Western protection helped the Kurds return. For three years the population of northern Iraq lived in relative security under the air umbrella of Operation Provide Comfort. A transition from fragmented guerrilla factions to a democratic government began when the two main parties won almost equal votes in elections in 1992.

But this process has threatened to blow up this month as the two factions started to fight, virtually splitting the region of 3.5 million people into two, the western part controlled by the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), the east by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and the centre, including the regional capital, Arbil, contested between them.

Fighting in the central mountain resort town of Shaqlawa yesterday was triggered by the assassination in an ambush on Tuesday of a senior PUK leader, Hassan Chawestani, reports from inside northern Iraq said.

'This is not just pot shots. One side has installed anti-aircraft guns on one side of the valley and the other is setting up positions opposite,' said Ben Cornwell of the Save the Children charity, which has been forced to suspend its village rehabilitation programme due to the fighting.

Aid workers were believed to be relatively safe. Relief agencies said that both sides were determined to respect the neutrality of foreigners in the region. The problem is that all foreigners travel with large armed escorts in case of attacks by agents of Saddam Hussein, and roadblocks do not now allow easy passage to anybody with weapons.

A row over a piece of land sparked the fighting. Diplomats and Iraqi sources say ambitious local PUK leaders provoked the battles while their leader, Jalal Talabani, was outside the country.

The Iraqi National Congress (INC), an organisation set up with covert Western support to unite the Iraqi factions fighting Saddam Hussein, has led talks to settle the dispute. The INC's military wing has even acted as a buffer force.

But nobody seems sure how to end the fighting, in which up to 200 people have been killed so far. Iraqi sources say Mr Talabani was hanging back in Damascus waiting for negotiating concessions. The KDP says he does not want fresh elections to sort out the political mess, although the PUK says he does.

'It's all causing a lot of harm to the Kurdish cause,' said Latif Rashid of the PUK, blaming outside forces and pointing out that the autonomous Iraqi Kurdish entity was being undermined by Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. The region also suffers from the UN sanctions against Iraq and Baghdad's embargo against the Kurds.

The main factors responsible had to do with the economic situation, Mr Rashid said. 'There is uncertainty, non-recognition by the outside world, a government without financial backing and an infrastructure in total ruins. It has caused a lot of popular distrust of government and Saddam rewards people who cause conflicts.'