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Iraqi Kurds caught between rebels, foreign forces

Written by: Staff

RAZAGA, Iraq, May 5 (Reuters) Kurdish villagers are fleeing their homes in northern Iraq after shelling and incursions by Iranian forces and a massive build-up of Turkish troops as both militaries move to crush separatist guerrillas.

Government leaders in Iraq's Kurdistan say Iran has attacked Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) guerrillas in Iraq three times in the past two weeks, and Turkey insists it has the right under military law to carry out cross-border operations if need be.

The PKK, seeking a Kurdish homeland including southeastern Turkey, accuses Ankara and Tehran of mounting coordinated operations against the group and its Iranian wing, PJAK.

About 60 of the 70 families in the village of Razaga, 10 km from the Iranian border, fled after almost four hours of shelling on Monday, local people told visiting reporters later in the week. Iran denies hitting targets inside Iraq.

''We were sleeping and a shell landed behind our house,'' said 53-year-old shopkeeper Van Hama Ameen, speaking in a nearby village where she had sought shelter.

''We woke up in horror and ran away screaming ...

''The shelling was random and we left our house without taking even a scrap of spare clothing. Then we walked three hours to reach another, safer village.'' SPRING OFFENSIVE Turkey, which traditionally launches a spring offensive against the rebels, has sent 40,000 troops to its own Kurdish areas to reinforce the 220,000 already there, the biggest build-up in years after an increase in PKK attacks.

NATO member Turkey also has 1,500 special forces troops at stationed in northern Iraq.

On Wednesday, a senior rebel commander threatened to retaliate if Turkey or Iran attacked PKK bases.

The president of autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, Masoud Barzani, has also warned of a tough response if outsiders move in.

''If some people imagine they can threaten us in Kurdistan, let them know we will disturb their peace in their regions -- and I mean what I say,'' he told al-Arabiya television. Barzani enjoys widespread sympathy among Turkey's Kurds.

More than 30,000 people have been killed since the PKK began its fight in 1984. It has in the past launched bomb attacks in Turkish cities and tourist resorts as well as fighting troops.

Turkey and Iran are wary of the autonomy Iraqi Kurds have consolidated since the 2003 Iraq war and fear it might lead to more unrest among their own large Kurdish populations.

About 5,000 PKK fighters are believed to be operating out of camps in Iraq's Kurdistan.

Turkey has voiced concern the conflict in Iraq is allowing the PKK to be more active and has asked the United States, which has more than 130,000 troops in Iraq, to do more.

Some analysts say the massing of Turkish troops on the border is partly aimed at putting pressure on Washington.

A senior official with the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party in Iraq warned the fighting could destabilise the region.

''Any fight that may erupt in Kurdistan because of the Turkish or the Iranian army will cause financial losses, as well as psychological damage to the people and to stability in the region for years.'' said Mohammed Qadhi.

He said the PKK's presence was hurting villagers, who faced the danger of rebel landmines and being caught in the crossfire.

In Razaga after the shelling, Sham Kuthir, a 45-year-old mother of eight, was staying put after the bombardment but was fearful and distraught.

''We live off the cattle my husband has. Now most of them have been killed by the shelling. But where can we go to earn our living?'' she asked.

''I have no relatives to go to, what can I do? I am afraid of more shelling, so I have dug a shelter to protect my children if it starts again.'' REUTERS OM BD1612

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