U.N. says up to 300,000 Kurds flee captured city

News and Press Release
Originally published
SULAYMANIYAH, Iraq (Sep 10, 1996 09:48 a.m. EDT) -- Waving yellow flags and shouting victory slogans, Saddam Hussein's Kurdish allies marched in triumph today through Sulaymaniyah as tens of thousands of frightened residents fled the city for nearby mountains and the border with Iran.

As many as 300,000 Kurds may have left, U.N. officials said today, one day after the Kurdish Democratic Party seized the city. The tide of refugees swelled so swiftly it evoked memories of the Kurdish exodus in 1991, when some 2 million people went to Iran and Turkey after a failed Kurdish uprising against the Iraqi president.

In an attempt by Saddam to reconcile with the Kurds, many of whom fear he will launch another campaign to suppress them, the Iraqi leader today declared an amnesty for all Kurds -- including members of the rebel Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

Excluded from the amnesty were people who committed rape or stole state money or property during the recent fighting, Foreign Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf announced on state television.

With the DPK's Monday night victory in Sulaymaniyah, the last rebel stronghold, Saddam gained effective control over northern Iraq for the first time since just after the 1991 Gulf War, when the U.S.-led forces established a "safe haven" for the Kurds.

U.N. officials in Sulaymaniyah estimated that 300,000 of the city's 400,000 people had fled. In Geneva, Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency, said that up to 80 percent of residents had left.

Some remaining residents, however, felt those figures were too high. They said many people were hiding in homes or only went to the outskirts of the city and were likely to return if there was no fighting.

U.S. missile strikes against southern Iraq last week seemed to deter the Iraqi army from taking part in the recent battles. But with Iraqi forces marching right behind the KDP, the faction easily defeated its Kurdish rival.

The KDP celebrated with an impromptu parade in Sulaymaniyah today, with soldiers waving yellow flags and shouting victory slogans through loudspeakers as they marched through the streets.

Some of them carried a 10-foot-high picture of KDP leader Massoud Barzani to the headquarters of their vanquished rivals. Children followed behind with makeshift banners of their own. Most shops were closed and there was a holiday air in the city.

But in neighboring Iran, the government said 200,000 Kurdish refugees were massed at its border and it did not intend to let them in unless their lives were in danger.

"We won't let them in unless their lives are threatened by gunfire or attacks," Ahmad Hosseini, an Interior Ministry official, told reporters in Tehran, the Iranian capital.

Hosseini said Iran had taken in some 100 injured Kurds, but he did not elaborate. He said Iran was determined to avoid a repeat of the 1991 refugee crisis, when more than a half-million Kurdish refugees flooded into Iran.

In Geneva, Colville said 75,000 refugees were heading for -- or already at -- the Iraqi border town of Panjwin. Some of those fleeing threw stones at U.N. vehicles in apparent frustration.

The Iraqi military and the KDP teamed up Aug. 31 to capture Irbil, the de facto Kurdish capital in northern Iraq. After that, the KDP forces headed eastward with the Iraqi tanks and heavy artillery in their wake.

After more than a week of stiff resistance, the PUK collapsed Monday and the KDP advanced throughout the day. Traveling in trucks, taxis and even old Mercedes-Benz sedans, the KDP troops encountered a few sniper ambushes, but quickly responded with heavy artillery fire.

As his fighters claimed the town of Dokan on Monday, Barzani stood on a hill just outside, saluting his men as they entered.

"This is the end of the collaborator," he said, referring to PUK leader Jalal Talabani's cooperation with Iran.

Talabani, for his part, predicted that Barzani would come to regret his alliance of convenience with Saddam.

"In aligning with Baghdad, the KDP has mounted a tiger which will destroy us all," a PUK statement said. "Once Saddam controls Kurdistan, he will no longer need his Kurdish ally and will consume the KDP and what remains of the Kurdish people."

In Washington, before President Clinton left the White House today for Kansas City, Mo., spokesman Mike McCurry said the administration is "continuing to monitor closely the developments."

Clinton has said the conflict won't be resolved until the Kurds stop fighting among themselves.

"I would still like to do more to help the Kurds," Clinton said. "But frankly, if you want the fighting to be ended, the leaders of the various factions are going to have to be willing to go back to the peace table and talk it through."

Copyright =A9 1996
Copyright =A9 1996 The Associated Press