UN will guard relief convoys for Iraqi Kurds: Supplies for winter will resume after a 'concession' by Baghdad. Hugh Pope reports from Istanbul

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The Independent Online
WINTER relief convoys for the Kurds of northern Iraq should start flowing as normal again today after Baghdad said it would allow a United Nations guard on to each truck as a deterrent against what many people believe are bombs planted by the Iraqis themselves.

The 'concession' followed the shooting down on Sunday by the United States of an Iraqi warplane that had breached the allied-imposed air exclusion zone south of the 32nd parallel. UN sources said an agreement was being finalised on truck movements yesterday.

Three sets of bombs on several trucks forced the suspension on 19 December of UN convoys travelling from Turkey and Arbil and Dihok along the shorter, asphalted road through Iraqi lines to the more heavily populated areas of eastern Iraqi Kurdistan.

Trucks had continued to supply the western areas. About 800 trucks have now delivered grain, seed and pulses to the Kurds since late November under a dollars 85m (pounds 55m) UN plan of action, partially financed by Britain.

A minimum of food is still available in Kurdistan and there are no reports of starvation. Shipments of 25 million litres of much-needed paraffin heating-oil will leave Turkey within weeks, aid workers said.

'It's looking good, better late than never. Until this week the weather has not been too bad. If they need fuel at all, it will be in mid-winter when the bulk of it arrives,' said one, adding his regret at the lack of long-term development aid for the 3.5 million people in Iraqi Kurdistan.

In the short term, much will still depend on security. Northern Iraq has been tenser since reports of Iraqi troop build-ups earlier this month. Many believe Sunday's action will be of help. 'Saddam tried to test . . . he was waiting for a signal to start his attack and to destroy everything in Kurdistan,' said Hayrullah Salih, a Kurdish spokesman in Ankara. 'If the shooting down had not happened, he would try again and again.'

An air exclusion zone north of the 36th parallel has protected the Kurds since 1991, patrolled by US, French and British aircraft of the 80-plane Hammer Force officially known as Provide Comfort II. The Turkish parliament extended the force's mandate for another six months on 24 December. More than 70 Turkish officers already monitor and authorise Provide Comfort's every move; the only change in the mandate was a proviso that the government could revoke the mandate at any time.

Ending months of uncertainty, the Prime Minister, Suleyman Demirel, staunchly backed the force against a Turkish media campaign that has accused it of fostering an independent Kurdistan, helping Turkey's Kurdish rebels or simply violating Turkey's sovereignty. A former prime minister, Bulent Ecevit, now leader of a fringe left-wing party, went as far as to visit President Saddam last week to call for the force to be withdrawn and for a normalisation of relations with Baghdad.

Symptomatic of suspicions verging on paranoia among a significant portion of Turkish public opinion, Mr Ecevit's party and Islamic fundamentalists even accused the West of deliberately bombing the Turkish UN trucks in Iraq to blackmail Turkey into renewing the force's mandate.

A Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman, Ferhat Ataman, said Ankara had nothing to do with Mr Ecevit's visit. He also made clear that the Hammer Force would have full Turkish backing for any necessary response if Iraqi planes tried to violate the exclusion zone north of the 36th parallel. 'There is no question that Turkey and the alliance are presenting a solid front,' Mr Ataman said.

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