Rebels Claim Captured Two Warplanes
ZAKHO, Iraq (AP) _ Kurdish rebels, who control a wide swath of northern Iraq, claimed today they captured two government warplanes in overrunning an air base near the northern oil center of Kirkuk.
They also said that hundreds of Iraqi officers and thousands more government soldiers have deserted and joined their struggle.
Rebel leader Jalal Talabani, who ended 18 months in exile when he arrived at this town near the Turkish border on Tuesday, said the captured planes were a MiG-21 fighter and a Sukhoi bomber, both Soviet-built.
He said government troops managed to destroy three other planes but the two captured were undamaged.
The rebels also said they overran a government camp at Faardiya, 35 miles south of Zakho on the road between Dohuk and government-held Mosul, the country’s third-largest city. It was not clear when the attacks were launched.
The Kurds claim to control virtually all of the largely mountainous territory of northeastern Iraq, running roughly from Zakho southeast to Kirkuk and Khanaqin near the Iranian border.
The area, which borders Turkey and Iran, encompasses about 12,500 square miles and includes most of Iraq’s 4 million Kurds.
Talabani’s comments came exactly one month after U.S.-led forces defeated Iraq in the Persian Gulf War. President Saddam Hussein’s war-battered army has since been struggling to control insurrections in the north and south.
The rebels accuse the Iraqis of using chemical weapons against them, as they did against Kurds three years ago.
Nazem Omar Hamad, guerrilla chief of the Zakho region, said 60 to 65 percent of the adult male Kurdish population was armed, mainly with weapons captured from the Iraqi army.
This was evident in the bustling marketplace of Zakho. Every other tribesman had a Kalashnikov rifle or other weapon slung over his shoulder. Many had ammunition belts crossing their chests or pistols tucked into their traditional droopy Kurdish trousers.
A group of South Korean and Bangladeshi workers from the major oil center of Kirkuk reported similar scenes in every town and village they had passed during a three-day 180-mile journey northwest to Zakho.
H. T. Kim, one of the five Koreans, said Kirkuk had been firmly in rebel hands since Saturday after ″some very fierce fighting in various locations.″
He said government forces used helicopter gunships and planes against the rebels but were forced to retreat eventually.
Hamad claimed exiled Iranian rebel forces based in Iraq, the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, had sided with Saddam to fight the uprising in Iraq.
He said People’s Mujahedin fighters using Iraqi army tanks Tuesday attacked the rebel-held towns of Khanaqin, Jalala and Jifa on the southern edge of the Kurdish-controlled region.
″The attack was repulsed and the Mujahedin withdrew, leaving behind 17 dead,″ Hamad added.
The People’s Mujahedin have denied attacking Iraqi rebel forces, claiming instead to have been fighting Iranian troops that they said crossed into Iraq.
Talabani received a tumultuous welcome when he arrived Tuesday at Zakho, coming from nearby Syria. He spent the day conferring with local Arab and Kurdish opposition leaders.
He said a joint action committee of opposition leaders would confer over the next few days to decide whether to form an interim government in the liberated Kurdish area of Iraq.
Talabani said the committee would also plan future action to capture the rest of Iraq from ″the oppressive dictatorship″ of Saddam.
At night, Talabani received 18 Kurdish Iraqi army officers, led by a colonel, who had deserted to the rebel side. Talabani said the 18 were among hundreds of officers and thousands of soldiers who have joined the rebels.
The officers walked into a room one at a time, stood at attention and saluted Talabani before shaking hands with him.
The defecting officers are assisting in training the scores of thousands of Kurdish men who have also joined the uprising, Talabani said.