Turkey Begins to Resettle Kurds

Ban on Iraqi refugees is lifted, but the ordeal persists for thousands in mountain passes

THE first major steps to bring comfort to hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurdish refugees stranded in the mountains in the Turkish border region were starting to be taken early this week - 18 days after the mass exodus of Kurds from their homes began. In the border regions of Iran, meanwhile, the authorities are still reporting major difficulties in trying to cope with the crush of desperate refugees.

Turkish officials say they are trying to take care of about 400,000 refugees - with another 300,000 expected to arrive in the coming days.

Hopes that their plight will gradually start to improve rose with a decision by the Turkish government, announced April 14, to lift the official ban on the refugees entering the country. Newspapers in Ankara, the capital, said the change of policy was ordered by President Turgut Ozal after talks with United States President Bush.

The preparations were getting under way with the transfer of a first group of 20,000 people from the huge temporary settlement of Isikveren in the mountains. For the past two weeks, more than 150,000 Kurds have been living there in what relief workers have called "disastrous conditions" - without food, water, or adequate shelter. Relief officials say many refugees have died, and many more are close to death.

The plan is that about 2,000 refugees each day will be driven by bus down to a camp near Silopi, on a plain close to the Iraqi border. Turkey plans to settle the refugees in more areas like this one adjacent to the Iraqi border.

"In the next few days," Hayri Kazakciogu, the governor of Turkey's southeastern border region, said, "the ordeal of thousands of Iraqi refugees, living under the worst conditions, will end and they will start living in a place equipped with every facility."

'We have done our best'

Commenting on Turkey's efforts to help the refugees, the governor commented: "We are not claiming to have done a good job, but we have done our best."

The camp at Silopi is becoming the main distribution point for a reinvigorated US effort - code-named Operation Provide Comfort - to bring help to the Kurdish refugees. US troops and military equipment were arriving in the area early this week.

Although the prospects for those refugees on the Turkish frontier look more promising than they did a few days ago, conditions on the Iranian border are deteriorating further, with little chance of improvement in the near future.

The Iranian Interior Ministry said on April 15 that the number of Iraqi refugees had risen to more than 900,000.

The ministry, quoted by the Iranian news agency, added that "continued attacks by the Baathist forces troops on Iraqis" were forcing people still to flee to Iran.

Other Iranian reports from the border areas spoke of more refugees dying "of sickness, exhaustion, and malnutrition."

The Iranian news agency said "starving refugees were rushing to trucks carrying foodstuff, preventing the proper distribution of supplies." The agency said that, because of a lack of hygienic and medical facilities, "it is feared that infectious disease may become epidemic."

Relief efforts strained

A grim note was also sounded by Vahid Dastjerdi, the head of the Iranian Red Crescent Society. The society was working in five border provinces, he said, adding: "At present, there is nothing in our warehouses."

The United Nations has said that it wants to raise $400 million to help Iraqi refugees on the Iranian and Turkish borders.

Sadako Ogata, the UN high commissioner for refugees, has been holding talks on the crisis with government officials in Iran. Sadruddin Agha Khan, the coordinator of UN relief supplies in the Gulf, has been having similar discussions in Iraq, and Eric Suy, a special envoy of the UN secretary-general, has been visiting northern areas of that country.

Although the plight of Kurdish refugees continues to attract international attention, Iraqi opposition groups say the armed struggle against the forces of President Saddam Hussein is beginning to gather momentum again.

According to reports filtering out of Iraq, many Kurdish fighters who left to help their families flee the advancing Iraqi Army have returned. The Kurdish guerrillas say they have been concentrating their efforts on attacking Army positions in and around the city of Suleimaniyyah.

The Iraqi government, for its part, is claiming that Kurdish families are "pouring back into towns and villages in the north of the country" in response to the amnesty announced earlier this month. Saddam gave a personal assurance last weekend about the safety of Kurds returning home, saying that only murderers, rapists, and thieves need fear punishment.

The president's appeal and the offer of an amnesty have had no noticeable impact on the refugee crisis, with hundreds of thousands of Kurds still trying to reach the border areas.

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