Supplies Dropped To Starving Refugees; Casualties Mount
CUKURCA, Turkey (AP) _ U.S. relief planes on Saturday dropped tons of food and blankets to the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees stranded along the Turkish border, where more are dying daily of cold and disease.
In Kuwait, U.N. soldiers prepared to replace U.S. troops as peacekeepers in Iraq.
President Bush, meanwhile, reiterated his promise to provide massive relief to help the Kurds massed on Iraq’s border with Turkey and Iran. But he again stressed that American soldiers would stay out of Iraq’s civil conflict.
″I do not want any single soldier or airman shoved into a civil war in Iraq that’s been going on for ages,″ Bush said during a visit to Alabama.
In Washington, a State Department official said there were no official U.S. relief personnel in northern Iraq, but the question of whether they might be sent into the region was under discussion.
Turkey says about 500,000 refugees, mostly Kurds fearing reprisal from Saddam Hussein’s armies, have crossed the border following their failed uprising. That revolt, and one by Shiite Muslims in the south, began after the U.S.-led allies defeated Iraq in the Gulf War.
Iran’s official Islamic Republic News Agency said Saturday that 900,000 of Iraq’s estimated 4 million Kurds and 150,000 Shiites had streamed into Iran.
About 4,800 U.S. troops are helping in the relief effort, and officials said they began expanding the number to 8,000 over the weekend.
At the U.S.-Turkish base at Incirlik, U.S. crews were working around the clock to bundle up food, blankets and tents for the refugees. During a seven- hour peak period, three relief flights took off every 30 minutes.
On one flight, a C-130 plane swooped down over the Turkish border and dropped 16 bundles containing 4,000 blankets.
Staff Sgt. William Walkowiak, 31, of Buffalo, N.Y., got the last glimpse of of the scene below from his perch in the back of the plane.
″They were already tearing into the boxes,″ he said.
The airdrops by American, British and French planes began last week and are expected to continue daily, dropping food, blankets and other relief supplies into inaccessible areas. Over a dozen countries have pledged money and supplies.
But many refugees still were going without. On the Haj Omran mountain pass leading to Iran, refugees huddled under a constant downpour. Most were starving and cold.
In the Turkish border town of Cukurca, the imam, or religious leader, said that during the night Friday 20 children under 2 years of age had died, most of diarrhea, exhaustion and cold.
Sixteen elderly people also died overnight following the grueling trek to the Turkish border, said the iman, who was conducting funeral services at a camp in the area.
There are no precise figures on how many people have died during the exodus to Turkey and Iran, but Turkish authorities say at least 1,500 refugees died before they reached the Turkish border.
Turkey has been sending supplies to refugees, but it has barred them from coming too far down out of the mountains for fear they will settle in. It says it cannot cope with the influx.
A British relief worker warned on Saturday that scores more children would die unless workers had better access to the refugees.
Martin Cottingham, a spokesman for the British-based Christian Aid charitable organization, said in Ankara after returning from the border that up to 30 children have been dying daily at a makeshift refugee camp at Isikveren.
The United States has told Iraq not to use planes and helicopters against Kurds in the northern part of Iraq, effectively ordering a haven for them north of the 36th parallel.
But Kurdish rebels say Iraqi forces are defying the U.S. order.
Two prominent Kurdish refugees, law professors Hurshid Rawnduzy and Sadi Barzanji, said in Cukurca that if the Kurds were promised protection in northern Iraq they would ″return within a week.″
Another refugee, lawyer Mustafa Mochtar, said that when he left the Iraqi town of Dohuk two days ago, only 10,000 of its 250,000 residents remained and that Iraqi troops were pillaging and burning the town.
In another gulf-related development, the head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Iraq and Kuwait, Austrian Maj. Gen. Gunther Greindl, arrived in Kuwait City and met with government officials. He planned to visit Baghdad on Sunday for discussions with the Iraqi leadership.
He told reporters his job, monitoring 120 miles of the Iraq-Kuwait border, would be ″difficult.″
Refugees on the Iraq-Kuwait border had little confidence in the peacekeeping mission, saying the U.N. contingent of 1,440 soldiers would not be enough to protect them from Saddam’s army.
About 100 refugees staged a sit-in outside the U.S. military camp in Safwan, Iraq.
Greindl said the U.N. troops could begin arriving Monday, but he declined to say when they would be in place at the border.
Until then, the United States is expected to keep soldiers in southern Iraq. It continues to send thousands home, however, and officials in Saudi Arabia said on Saturday that 300,000 remained - down from a peak of 540,000.