ANKARA, Turkey -- Thousands of civilians are fleeing their cities and villages in northern Iraq in fear of Iraqi reprisals against Kurdish rebels and their supporters.
Unofficial estimates of the number of ill-equipped and unfed Kurdish refugees likely to attempt to cross the mountains to Iran and Turkey range from 1 million to 3 million.
Faced with this prospect, Turkey called yesterday for an urgent meeting of the United Nations Security Council. A statement issued by Turkey's National Security Council, headed by President Turgut Ozal, said that "over 200,000 people, mostly women and children, are facing danger of death near our borders."
Ankara still had not decided yesterday whether it would accept great numbers of the refugees.
Earlier in Paris, the French Foreign Ministry also expressed concern over the fate of those caught by the fighting. It said France would bring the Kurdish issue and the fate of Shiite Muslims in southern Iraq before the Security Council later yesterday.
"The situation is absolutely horrific," said Sarbast Aram, spokesman for the Kurdish Cultural Center in London. "Unless something is done quickly, we're heading for a major disaster."
Iraqi forces are waging an all-out battle to wrest control of northern Iraqi cities from Kurdish guerrillas.
The rebels claimed yesterday to have retaken the oil city of Kirkuk after withdrawing under Iraqi fire. The claim was challenged by officials in the U.S. government who are closely monitoring the fighting in northern Iraq.
In Damascus, Syria, a spokesman for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan said rebels had regained control of Kirkuk, a strategically vital city in northern Iraq that produces a third of Iraq's entire oil output. The spokesman, quoted by the Reuters news agency, said more than 10,000 fighters were in Kirkuk.
Mr. Aram, in London, said his reports indicated that rebels may not have taken complete control of the city, but of certain neighborhoods. "Saddam Hussein has taken control of most Kurdish cities and towns," he said.
In Washington, U.S. defense officials challenged the Kurds' claim that they had taken Kirkuk.
"No, it has not [been recaptured]. They [Kurds] have pulled back into the mountains, basically," one of the officials told Reuters when asked whether U.S. intelligence showed that Kirkuk had been retaken six days after the Kurds lost it to President Hussein's forces.
"We have no evidence that that has happened," said another of the defense officials, who asked not to be identified. "The government appears to be in control."
Most Western journalists in Iraq fled into southern Turkey yesterday, so the reports of Kurdish advances could not be confirmed.
One unidentified journalist was reported killed in the fighting, and two were injured.
Kurdish representatives said the Iraqi assault was designed to crush all resistance to the Baghdad government. They said that whole villages had been exterminated for having supported the separatists.
They said that in the Kurdish village of Qaihanjir, near Kirkuk, the remaining population was massacred for having supported Kurdish rebels. "Many had fled already, but they killed hundreds," the spokesman said.
"Dohuk and Kirkuk are apparently depopulated because of the atrocities of the Iraqi army," said Mr. Aram, whose umbrella organization represents Iraqi Kurdish groups.
"They haven't used chemical weapons so far, but the number killed is much greater than at Halabja," Mr. Aram said, alluding to a Kurdish village on which Mr. Hussein used chemical weapons toward the close of the Iran-Iraq war.
Turkey is still dealing with 30,000 Kurdish refugees who fled Iraq in 1988 because of chemical weapons attacks. The Turkish government took in a total of 50,000 Kurdish exiles and remains bitter over the spotty assistance it received from the international community.
Mr. Aram said "many thousands" of civilians had also fled Sulaimaniya, which is believed to be the last major northern Iraqi city still entirely under Kurdish rebel control.
Most of the refugees so far were fleeing into Iran, which is easier to reach by land. In Turkey, the provincial governor of Hakkari, Sehabettin Harput, said 30,000 people were waiting on the other side of the border to cross into Turkey.
But with Turkish President Ozal returning only yesterday from a visit to the United States, the country appeared paralyzed over the issue.
"This decision [to open the border] will be made at the highest level," said Muat Sungar, spokesman for the Turkish Foreign Ministry.
"The West has shown a romantic interest, but they were never willing to take these people in," Mr. Sungar said. "It's a problem. We don't want to close the border, but it's an incredible burden, frankly."