Turkey shuts Iraqi border to refugee Kurds

April 04, 1991|By Diana Jean Schemo | Diana Jean Schemo,Sun Staff Correspondent

DIYARBAKIR, Turkey -- The Turkish government decided yesterday to close its southern border to an estimated 200,000 Kurds fleeing an onslaught by Iraqi forces, citing as a reason inadequate international support the last time Turkey accepted Kurdish refugees in 1988.

The decision leaves the ill-equipped, poorly clad and hungry Kurds without exit. Reporters leaving northern Iraq described brutal government reprisals against Kurdish civilians for having supported the rebels and unrelieved misery in the mountains near the Turkish border.

"We're hearing reports of villages continuing to be struck by artillery barrages even after surrendering and of whole columns of refugees being strafed on the mountains," said a Western diplomat sent here to survey the situation.

Reporters reaching London said that Kurdish children stood barefoot crying in the snow and that entire families were making the two-day crossing on only tea and sugar. Kurdish sources in Paris and London said that "many people" had died, though they did not have exact figures.

Baghdad claimed yesterday to have retaken the northern mountain city of Sulaimaniya, the last Kurdish rebel stronghold. While sporadic fighting was reported to be continuing on the outskirts of the oil-producing city of Kirkuk, it appeared that the Kurds' brief moment of national glory had ended.

France and Turkey urged the United Nations Security Council to rush food and medical aid to the Kurdish refugees and to demand the cooperation of the Baghdad government.

France, a permanent member of the Security Council, urged it to condemn the Iraqi repression and to require Baghdad to hold peace talks with the rebels.

But Abdul Amir al-Anbari, the Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations, said France and Turkey were only "making noises about human rights." He dismissed their proposals as "rather brazen intervention" in Iraq's domestic affairs.

Kurdish sources appeared skeptical at the United States' claim that it was not intervening out of respect for Iraq's internal affairs.

"What about U.S. support for the mujahedeen in Afghanistan or the contras in Nicaragua?" asked Kendal Nezan, director of the Kurdish Institute in Paris. "A government does not have the right to massacre its people."

Thirteen journalists covering the fighting crossed into Turkey yesterday. The British Broadcasting Corp. reported that a group who swam across a river marking the border Tuesday had been shot at by both Iraqi forces and Turkish border guards. A U.S. Embassy source in Turkey said that at least five reporters were still missing.

The BBC said that Turkish border guards initially tried to throw the men back in the river so they could not enter the country but that they finally allowed them to stay.

By day's end, the Turkish government announced that journalists would be allowed to enter Turkey, but the borders remained closed for the estimated 200,000 Iraqi refugees, mostly Kurds, gathering in the mountains.

Turkish journalists said border guards were shooting over the heads of refugees to keep them from forcing their way into the country.

"The border is closed. It will not be possible to come into Turkey in massive groups," Murat Sungar, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said in Ankara.

Mr. Sungar said that "Turkey has taken every necessary security measure" to keep masses of refugees from entering. He did not specify what they were. He denied that border guards were firing warning shots.

The Turkish government said that fewer than 7,500 Iraqi refugees had entered since August.

A Western diplomat said yesterday that Turkey's policy probably would change if the situation became more desperate, if there were an international outcry or if foreign assistance to Ankara were forthcoming.

During a parliamentary debate last night, at least one member of Turkish President Turgut Ozal's Motherland Party argued for opening the borders.

But Prime Minister Yildirim Akbulut said, "It is basically a humanitarian matter that Iraq should settle internally."

Turkey reported that it was still trying to find permanent homes for 27,000 of the 50,000 Kurdish refugees it admitted when Iraqi President Saddam Hussein launched chemical attacks against them in 1988, and it has said that Western help then was inadequate.

Sarbast Aram, a spokesman for the Kurdish Cultural Center in London, said he did not disagree with the Turkish government.

"We think it's true. Turkey alone cannot handle this influx," he said. "The international community must act."

Some refugees have made it across despite the heavy patrols.

Turkey and Iraq share a border of several hundred miles, and all possible crossings cannot be controlled.

Mumtaz Cherchal, a Kurdish journalist on the Milliyet newspaper, said that 25,000 refugees had already entered Turkey through gaps in the border patrol, despite the far lower official figures.

An additional 700,000 refugees were said to be heading toward the Iranian border, with 60,000 having already entered that country. The Associated Press reported that Iran was turning back refugees.

Kurdish leaders were deeply bitter yesterday at the seeming indifference to their people's fate. In a week, President Bush has gone from hero to villain. "I hate George Bush," went the refrain on along the streets of Diyarbakir yesterday.

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