QUSHTAPA, Iraq, March 13 (Reuters) - Kurds are leaving Iraq's northern oil city of Kirkuk in increasing numbers and heading for the Kurdish-administered region outside the control of Baghdad, escaping Kirkuk residents said on Thursday.
They said a temporary security clampdown on Kurdish quarters in Kirkuk, which were sealed off on Monday night while troops searched them for guns and weapons, had now been lifted, allowing them to leave.
They added that they believed many strategic locations, including oilfields, oil pipelines and a bridge, had been mined ahead of a possible U.S. invasion of Iraq, although this could not be independently confirmed.
"We didn't sleep last night, the situation is so unstable and people are so afraid," said one man of 23, seeking sanctuary in the Kurdish zone of northern Iraq with his 17-year old brother and a 22-year old cousin.
He did not give his name, like all those Reuters spoke to at the Qushtapa crossing point on Thursday. He said his parents had stayed in Kirkuk to look after their home, adding that it was common for young people to leave while older ones remained.
But while guards confirmed that the numbers crossing were rising, the checkpoint remained calm and uncrowded on Thursday.
A Kurdish-administered zone was set up in northern Iraq at the end of the 1991 Gulf War, following reprisals by President Saddam Hussein after a failed Kurdish uprising against him. It is protected by a U.S. and British-patrolled no-fly zone.
Kurds are a minority in Iraq, but a majority in the north.
The 23-year old said he had seen explosive charges laid on oil pipelines running alongside roads, and added that he believed oilfields had been mined. He and some friends had recently tried to drive in the direction of the oilfields for a picnic but had been sent back by security forces.
Kirkuk is the main oil production region of northern Iraq, accounting for around 800,000 barrels per day.
A driver crossing the border told Reuters earlier this week that his uncle, who worked in the oilfields, had told him they were mined. Travellers then said a huge series of trenches 50 metres (yards) long by 20 metres wide and around four metres deep, filled with crude oil, had beeen dug around Kirkuk.
The 23-year old said on Thursday that two Kurdish-dominated districts of Kirkuk, Rahim-Awa and Iskan, were emptying. A group of men waiting at the border confirmed that people were leaving those districts.
"Yes, a lot of people are coming over. Rahim-Awa is going to be empty," said one, adding that he would stay with relatives in the north until any war was over.
He said an oil-well fire which started in the Kirkuk oilfields around 12 days ago was still burning.
Guards on the Kurdish side of the Qushtapa checkpoint said the increase in travellers crossing was recent.
"For about three days the numbers have been rising," one said. "Today more people than ever are coming over."
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
- For more humanitarian news and analysis, please visit https://www.trust.org/alertnet