Massive air raids around northern oil capital

US-LED forces carried out massive air strikes around Iraq’s northern oil capital of Kirkuk last night, as pro-US Kurdish forces here signalled a new front against Saddam Hussein could soon be opened.

A US general in Salahaddin, meanwhile, announced the formation of a military and humanitarian liaison centre for northern Iraq and southeast Turkey, as part of an apparent bid to avoid any Kurdish-Turkish conflict in case of a Turkish deployment in Iraqi Kurdistan. A resident inside Kirkuk contacted by phone reported “many dead and injured” after a morning of intense air strikes on Iraqi army positions guarding the perimeter of the city. US jets also hit a frontline ridge overlooking Kurdish rebel-held Chamchamal, 40 kilometres (25 miles) east of Kirkuk, with six massive blasts hitting dug-in troops during a mid-morning raid. US or British warplanes the same day bombed Iraqi positions near Pir Daud to the northwest, 80 kilometres (50 miles) from Kirkuk and just inside territory under Baghdad’s control, Kurdish security officials said. The attack sent up eight plumes of smoke on hillsides, they said.

Meanwhile, more US special forces were flown into this eastern part of the Kurdish zone run by the rebel Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), with witnesses saying at least one planeload of troops and several helicopters were flown in on Sunday night.

“Kirkuk is now under heavy attack. We are on full alert,” said senior PUK military official Rostam Hamid Rahim in Chamchamal. “Some positions on the frontlines were also hit and the road between here and Kirkuk as well.” But he said his forces in this almost deserted town, situated less than 1,500 metres from some of the Iraqi lines hit, had no intention of attacking given that the opposing troops had yet to show any sign of giving up.

The force of the blasts blew out some windows here and, amid the huge plumes of black smoke thrown up on the ridge, Iraqi troops could be seen dashing from bunker to bunker.

There was only a brief barrage of anti-aircraft fire in response to the surprise attack, the first on frontlines here since war began. In Baghdad, Information Minister Mohammad Said al-Sahhaf said Iraqi troops had foiled an attempted British and US landing near Kirkuk late on Sunday.

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