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U.S.: Kurdish Rebels Agree to Stop Blocking Refugees’ Return

April 29, 1991

ZAKHO, Iraq (AP) _ Allied military leaders today told Iraqi Kurdish guerrillas to stop blocking Kurdish refugees from coming home from squalid camps on the Turkish border, and said the rebels agreed to comply.

In another development, the United Nations announced today it would take its first step Tuesday toward assuming control of the camps for the refugees being built by Western forces in northern Iraq.

Also today, Turkish President Turgut Ozal called for a long-term Western military presence in northern Iraq. He said Iraqi Kurdish refugees would only return home with such protection.

″If the allied powers do not maintain their presence in northern Iraq, the Iraqi Kurds will start running again as soon as they see an Iraqi soldier,″ Ozal told the Iranian news agency, IRNA. His comments were also carried by Turkey’s semi-official Anatolia news agency.

The allied instructions to the Kurdish rebels came at a meeting by U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Jay M. Garner at his headquarters in Zakho with about a dozen leaders of the Kurdish rebels known as the Pesh Merga, or those who face death. British, Dutch and French military officials also attended.

Officials said the meeting was successful, and that afterward the top guerrilla leader, identified only as Gen. Ali, was taken by U.S. forces to one of the main rebel checkpoints for the descent from the Isikveren camp on the Turkish border. There, Ali ordered his men to let people pass freely.

The allied forces are building camps in northern Iraq to relocate hundreds of thousands of the Kurdish refugees who fled to the Turkish and Iranian borders as Saddam Hussein’s military crushed a short-lived Kurdish rebellion.

Military officials said some Pesh Merga guerrillas had been refusing to allow refugees to go to the allied-built camp at Zakho because they were not convinced that it was safe from Iraqi attack.

To allay those fears, the military flew Gen. Ali over the area so he could see U.S. and allied troops’ positions and defenses. The Pesh Merga were also taken on a military convoy through Zakho so they could see that the Iraqi military had left.

Another topic at today’s meeting was two grenade attacks on Iraqi police or suspected collaborators in Zakho during the previous 72 hours. Allied authorities had allowed a small group of local police to remain in Zakho after ordering the Iraqi military to withdraw.

Garner said no civilians or guerrillas would be allowed to display weapons in the city of Zakho.

He said relatively few Kurdish refugees were coming down from the mountains now, but predicted they would begin to stream down ″in earnest in about two days.″

Healthy refugees who could walk and those with their own transport could proceed on their own, while transport would be found for the rest, he said.

In what was described as a first step toward an eventual U.N. takeover of the refugee effort, the United Nations announced it would send a humanitarian convoy from Turkey into Zakho on Tuesday morning, and that a U.N. humanitarian center will be established just outside the Zakho camp.

″This is to establish their presence and start the process of assuming control,″ said Col. Don Kirchoffner, a spokesman for U.S. forces aiding the Kurdish refugees.

A second U.N. convoy bringing personnel and equipment from Baghdad to Zakho is scheduled to arrive at the northern city late Tuesday or Wednesday, according to the U.N. statement, which was given to The Associated Press by U.S. officials at the Incirlik air base in Turkey.

Lt. Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, the commander of the multinational military forces participating in the Kurdish aid effort, learned details of the U.N. plan on Sunday, said Kirchoffner.

The U.S. commander held an unscheduled meeting with a special U.N. envoy for humanitarian action, Staffan De Mistura, whom he encountered at the Zakho camp, said Kirchoffner said by telephone from the Incirlik base.

The European Community also announced today it had granted $4.7 million to support French and Dutch projects to help the Kurdish refugees in northern Iraq.

In all, about 2 million Kurds fled the failed rebellion, about 800,000 to the border with Turkey and the rest to Iran.

The camp at Zakho, where about 1,000 tents have been set up so far, took in its first 250 inhabitants Saturday and will grow to house about 21,000 people, official have said.

More than 2,000 British, U.S., Dutch and French troops patrol the area, and 7,000 others are setting up the camps.

In southern Iraq, other refugees who also fled civil turmoil after Iraq’s defeat in the Persian Gulf War were being flown to a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia from a camp in southern Iraq run by U.S. forces.

The airlift, which began Sunday and continued today, was expected to take abut a week. The U.N. observer force that is replacing American troops in the demilitarized zone on the Iraq-Kuwait border is not equipped to protect or provide for the estimated 11,000 refugees.

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