SILOPI, TURKEY, APRIL 15 -- The Turkish government, after two weeks of ordering its army to pen up hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurdish refugees in squalid and chaotic mountain camps, announced today that it will transfer all of the refugees into properly equipped refugee centers.
In a dramatic reversal of its policy on the Kurds, the emergency-rule governor of eastern Turkey said that as of today, the government will begin busing about 2,000 refugees a day from the largest mountain camp at Isikveren, where 150,000 people are sleeping in the highland cold without water, sufficient shelter or basic sanitation.
About 25,000 refugees from that camp, beginning with small children, pregnant women and the sick, are to be transported about 100 miles to a lowland plain located near the small town of Silopi and just three miles from the Iraqi border.
In the last 24 hours, what had been a government rest station for Muslims traveling south for the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca has been invaded with bulldozers, piled high with relief hardware and refitted to house refugees.
U.S. Army soldiers, working with Turkey as part of "Operation Provide Comfort," pitched hundreds of tents here overnight. Just down the road, at a helicopter base set up over the weekend, a massive American air-land program to rush help to the Kurds is also taking shape.
In Washington, the State Department estimated that Kurdish refugees are dying at a rate of up to 1,000 a day along the Iraqi-Turkish border.
The White House left open the possibility of U.S. forces entering northern Iraq to deliver aid to refugees there. White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said he could not categorically rule out use of U.S. troops in northern Iraq, adding, "You can't say there won't some moving in and out."
The Turkish government, after being lambasted by international relief agencies for keeping the refugees in the harsh mountain environment, where many are sick and death rates are rising, today dispatched scores of doctors and nurses, truckloads of medicines, eight mobile kitchens and a mobile hospital here to Silopi. Nurses from regional cities said they first learned they would be coming when their phones rang at midnight Sunday.
The government mobilization comes at the start of the Eid al-Fitr feast, Islam's most important holiday, marking the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. In Turkey, which has a majority Muslim population, the feast marks the start of a long-anticipated five-day holiday.
Health Minister Halil Sivgin said at a press conference that 50,000 Iraqis "will face death" if they remain in the mountains that straddle the Iraqi-Turkish border.
The minister said that Turkey, by bringing the Kurds down from the mountains, is acting far more hospitably than many of the Western countries that have been criticizing it.
"While some Western states, for economic reasons, have closed down their borders to 10,000 Albanians, Turkey has disregarded economic considerations and has made humanitarianism prevail," Sivgin said.
Emergency Rule Gov. Hayri Kozakcoglu said the Turkish government was evaluating 30 to 35 other lowland sites as potential camps for the rest of the Kurds stuck in the mountains. He invited the United Nations, as well as private relief organizations from around the world, to set up and run camps as soon as sites have been found.
Kozakcoglu said that some of the camps will be built across the Turkish border in Iraq, and that United Nations and private relief agencies -- not Turkey -- will run them under the auspices of a U.N. resolution demanding that the Iraqi government provide access and assistance to humanitarian work growing out of the Persian Gulf War.
There are now an estimated 500,000 Iraqis inside Turkey's borders, according to Turkish government estimates, and another 300,000 are expected to walk into this country through the mountains in the next few days.
"We do not claim that we have done the best" for the refugees, said Kozakcoglu. But he said the dimensions of the refugee crisis are such that Turkey cannot handle it without massive and long-term international assistance.
"Turkey should not be left alone with this problem," Kozakcoglu said. "All the world is responsible."
The governor said Turkey was committed to making the camp here at Silopi a model for refugee care, and he challenged the United Nations and private relief organizations to build a better one.
The government's change of heart on care for the Kurds comes despite considerable apprehension among senior Turkish officials about what the Kurdish influx could do to this country's wobbly economy and how it could affect the nationalist desires of Turkey's own 10 million-strong Kurdish population.
Emergency rule has been in effect in eastern Turkey since 1987 because of an insurgency by Turkish Kurds. Emergency rule gives the governor wide police power, and the entire region is patrolled by heavily armed soldiers.
Iraqi Kurds traditionally have enjoyed more rights -- including Kurdish-language education and access to Kurdish-language media -- than have the Turkish Kurds. Many Turkish Kurds are bitter about what they call police-state repression and insist they should at least have the same rights as the Iraqi Kurds.
Asked today if settling so many Iraqi Kurds inside Turkey might foment local Kurdish demands for a separate state of Kurdistan, Kozakcoglu said, "It will not have any effect."
Few observers of Turkey's long and bloody history of conflict with the Kurds would agree with the governor's statement. It was notable in the press conference, camp tour and government handouts on the refugee crisis that no Turkish official or Turkish document once used the word "Kurd."
With the Turkish government today unlocking the single most important obstacle to providing care to the refugees, the U.S. military relief effort -- which is committed to providing 700,000 people with one meal a day for a month -- is gathering momentum.
Just a mile from this camp, which is about four miles from the Iraqi border, the Americans are constructing a forward supply base for relief distribution. A tented camp is being erected tonight for 1,000 U.S. soldiers, whose job it will be to unload trucks and load relief supplies onto helicopters.
More than 50 trucks have already been unloaded at the camp, with another 50 waiting outside along an asphalt road. The first CH-53 transport helicopter lifting supplies up to Isikveren took off this afternoon.
The senior officer at the helicopter base, Col. Norty Schwartz, said helicopters will fly 20 sorties a day, with a total daily payload of about 50 tons.
Schwartz acknowledged that there probably will be problems handing out food and relief supplies at Isikveren, a sprawling, ill-organized camp where the Turkish army is still posted and where distribution of food has been chaotic and occasionally violent.
"We have people at the site to receive the goods. There are about 30 or 40 military personnel skilled in dealing with indigenous populations," Schwartz said. "They will do the best they can to orchestrate the distribution. But they are a limited number, and we don't have a management function at the camp. It is going to be a problem for an extended period."
The first relief flights of the big helicopters at Isikveren went badly today. Mobs surrounded the choppers, and pilots were afraid of hurting people crowding onto the landing sites, according to an American spokesman. Supplies were dropped from a low altitude.