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'I feel that we will die': Civilians fearful as Turks move into Iraq

'I feel that we will die': Civilians fearful as Turks move into Iraq

Turkey says it is not targeting civilians as it chases after separatist rebels in northern Iraq, but people in Iraq's semiautonomous Kurdish region say they've lived in fear since the incursion began.
Some residents of this area roughly 30 kilometers (18 miles) from the Iraq-Turkey border thought they'd escaped to a safe haven, having abandoned homes closer to the border to avoid skirmishes between the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, and Turkish troops.
But with the Turks mounting their first confirmed ground operation in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, some say they are fearful of getting caught in the deadly crossfire.
Already, the Turkish military says it has killed 153 rebels since fighting began last Thursday. Turks fired barrage after barrage of artillery shells at rebels Monday, and its military said it had hit some 30 targets in the last 24 hours. The Turks have put their own death toll at 17; a funeral service for three troops was held Monday.
"Whenever the children hear the military operations, they feel frightened," said school headmaster Aoni Mashaghti. "Most of the women came to school to take their kids out. Whenever they hear any sound of bombardment, the school becomes empty."
Hawzan Hussein, who lives in a community of about 160 families in the area, said people are worried because some of the Turkish targets are so close to their homes.
The explosions "have become a daily scene that frightened me with the possibility of hitting our house any time," the 25-year-old said.
Associated Press Television News footage from the border area showed Turkish tanks dug into barren hillsides, with armored vehicles taking positions in towns.
The PKK wants autonomy for the predominantly Kurdish southeastern Turkey and rebels have carried out attacks in Turkey from bases in Kurdish Iraq. The conflict started in 1984 and has killed up to 40,000 people.
Turkey has assured Iraq and the U.S. military that the operation would be limited to attacks on rebels. The U.S. and European Union consider the PKK a terrorist group.
The Iraqi government criticized the offensive on Saturday.
"We know the threats that Turkey is facing, but military operations will not solve the PKK problem," Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said.
The rebels, meanwhile, warned they have a home court advantage.
"We are using guerrilla fighting techniques and not fighting as one fixed front," said Havaw Ruaj, a PKK spokesman. The rebels are skilled at fighting in the rocky mountainous area and changing their positions, he said.
Massoud Barzani, head of the regional administration in the semiautonomous Kurdish area, warned Turkey would face large-scale resistance if it targeted civilians in its incursion.
Mohammad Mohsin, a senior official with the Democratic Party of Kurdistan, also said the local people "do not want to be part of this armed dispute, but our red line is when the Turkish troops attack our secured villages and our villagers," he said. "The people and the (Kurdish militia) will attack them."
Kurdish demands have run the spectrum from self-rule to more limited rights, such as increased freedom to educate and broadcast in their language.
The Turkish government granted some cultural rights to Kurds as part of its bid to join the European Union. But many Kurds, who comprise 20 percent of Turkey's population of 75 million, chafe under state controls on freedom of expression.
The PKK started as a Marxist-Leninist group demanding an independent homeland, but shed socialist ideology with the end of the Cold War and says it seeks some degree of self rule, similar to that of Spain's semiautonomous Catalonia region.
Turkey had previously conducted air raids against the PKK guerrillas in northern Iraq since December, with the help of U.S. intelligence, and it has periodically carried out so-called "hot pursuits" in which small units sometimes spend only a few hours inside Iraq.
Sitting in a cafe watching TV, Kamil Murad Khan said he joined in a recent demonstration against the Turkish forces, during which the Kurdish forces surrounded the demonstrators.
"I feel the sympathy with PKK, because they are Kurds like us," he said.
But others were less concerned with choosing sides, than with surviving the incursion.
A 20-year-old woman who only identified herself as Hawzan said fled to the border region from al-Qaida in Iraq stronghold Mosul for fear of being killed. Now Turkish tanks have become her neighbor.
"Whenever a Turkish soldier revs the engine of the tank, I feel that we will die," she said. "My daily view is the bombardment of the mountain behind us."
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Associated Press writer Selcan Hacaoglu in Cukurca, Turkey, contributed to this report.


Updated : 2021-06-18 07:58 GMT+08:00