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Last Updated:  Saturday, 15 March, 2003, 13:39 GMT
Kurds flee Iraqi town
Map of Iraq showing Kirkuk
People say they are leaving with whatever they can carry
Refugees have been streaming into the Kurdish-controlled area of northern Iraq after what they say is a new wave of oppression.

Reports say hundreds of former residents of the northern city of Kirkuk have arrived in the area in the past few days.

They say Iraqi forces have been trying to root out any Kurdish opposition ahead of an American-led attack.

Kirkuk, at the centre of Iraq's most important northern oil fields, remains under government control while other mainly Kurdish areas nearby have gained virtual autonomy.

Correspondents say the city could be a key battleground in any war, as it is likely to be on the advance route if US troops enter from Turkey.

Iraq will want to hold on to its oil industry, while the Kurds have identified it as their preferred capital in any new Kurdish state.

Stories from fleeing refugees, which cannot be verified independently, appear to confirm that soldiers are fortifying positions in Kirkuk.

Saheed Said, who crossed into the Western protected Kurdish enclave with his wife and children a few days ago, said: "It's terrible - Saddam has turned it into a military camp."

Opponents targeted

Others say Iraqi authorities are desperate to find and stamp out any signs of dissent among the majority Kurdish population.

Kurdish refugee Resan Bahadi
We were so afraid - we decided we couldn't wait and had to leave right away
Resan Bahadi,
Kurdish refugee
Many people are being arrested, they say.

So many people have crossed into the Kurdish enclaves in recent days that the authorities are setting up tent camps and asking people to give up their spare rooms for the refugees.

Resan Bahadi and her 12-year-old daughter were among those queuing in the hope of being allocated a space in someone's home. She said she had no option but to flee.

"We were so afraid - we decided we couldn't wait and had to leave right away," she said

"All I grabbed was a few clothes and one loaf of bread."

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