Iraqi forces seize territory from Kurds in independence dispute

Iraqi forces drive towards Kurdish Peshmerga positions on the southern outskirts of Kirkuk on Sunday. Baghdad has been turning the screws on the Kurdish region since a September independence referendum, pushing Kurd leaders to disavow the vote and accept shared administration over Kirkuk. (AFP)
Updated 16 October 2017
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Iraqi forces seize territory from Kurds in independence dispute

KIRKUK, Iraq: Iraqi forces clashed with Kurdish fighters Monday near the disputed city of Kirkuk, seizing a key military base and other territory in a major operation sparked by a controversial independence referendum.
The offensive, which follows weeks of soaring tensions between two US allies in the battle against the Daesh group, aims to retake oil fields and military bases that Kurdish forces seized during the fightback against the jihadists.
Iraqi and Kurdish peshmerga forces exchanged artillery fire early Monday south of Kirkuk, the capital of the oil-rich province, after the launch of the operation overnight.
In a major advance, Iraq's Joint Operations Command said central government forces took control of the K1 military base northwest of the city -- the first objective of the offensive -- following the withdrawal of peshmerga fighters.
They also seized bridges, roads and an industrial zone to the southwest of Kirkuk, as well as gas facilities, a power station, a refinery and a police station, it said.
The clashes follow an armed standoff between Kurdish forces and the Iraqi army prompted by the September 25 non-binding referendum that produced a resounding "yes" for independence for the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq.
Baghdad has declared the referendum -- held despite international opposition -- illegal.
Crisis talks on Sunday had made little headway in resolving the standoff, which has raised fears of fresh chaos just as Daesh jihadists are on the verge of losing their last strongholds in the country.
State television announced that government troops had taken "large areas" of the province from Kurdish forces "without fighting".
Military sources on both sides however reported exchange of Katyusha rocket fire to the south of the provincial capital.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who said this week that he was "not going... to make war on our Kurdish citizens", has "given orders to armed forces to take over security in Kirkuk," state television said.
Iraqi troops will "secure bases and government facilities in Kirkuk province" the government said.
Multiple peshmerga fighters were injured in the clashes and hospitalised in Kirkuk, a local security source said.
Abadi said that members of the Hashed al-Shaabi, the paramilitary Popular Mobilisation forces, which are dominated by Iran-backed Shiite militias, would stay away from Kirkuk, where there have been multiple demonstrations against their involvement in the dispute.
An AFP photographer saw columns of Iraqi troops heading towards Kirkuk from the south.
Two people were killed in artillery exchanges at Tuz Khurmatu, 75 kilometres south of Kirkuk, a doctor at a city hospital said.
On Sunday, Iraq's National Security Council said it viewed as a "declaration of war" the presence of "fighters not belonging to the regular security forces in Kirkuk", including fighters from Turkey's outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).
For their part the Iraqi forces have said that they have no wish to enter Kirkuk but that they wish to retake military positions and infrastructure which were under their control before their troops withdrew in the face of hostility from the jihadists.
On the fringes of the town, they used loudspeakers to call on the peshmerga to give up their positions, local sources said.
Long claimed by the Kurds as part of their historic territory, the province has emerged as the main flashpoint in the dispute.
Polling during the referendum was held not only in the three provinces of the autonomous Kurdish region but also in adjacent Kurdish-held areas, including Kirkuk, that are claimed by both Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan.
The Kurds control the city of Kirkuk and three major oil fields in the province that produce some 250,000 barrels per day, accounting for 40 percent of Iraqi Kurdistan's oil exports.
The fields would provide crucial revenue to Baghdad, which has been left cash-strapped from the global fall in oil prices and three years of battle against Daesh. Iraq is also demanding the return of a military base and a nearby airport, according to the Kurds.


Protests across Spain as sexual abuse gang released on bail

Updated 1 min 1 sec ago
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Protests across Spain as sexual abuse gang released on bail

MADRID: Protesters hit the streets across Spain for the second day running on Friday, after five men sentenced to nine years in prison for sexually abusing a young woman at Pamplona’s bull-running festival were released on bail.
The men, who called themselves “The Pack” in a WhatsApp messaging group, had been accused of raping a woman, then 18, on July 7, 2016, at the start of the week-long San Fermin festival, which draws tens of thousands of visitors.
All five, aged between 27 and 29, were convicted of sexual abuse in April but were acquitted of the more serious crime of sexual assault — which includes rape — as the court did not consider the victim to have been subjected to intimidation or violence.
The men appealed their jail terms and a Pamplona court on Thursday ordered the five to be released on bail of 6,000 euros ($7,000) pending the outcome of the appeal.
Thousands of people of all ages demonstrated outside the justice ministry in central Madrid on Friday evening, shortly after the five men left jail after spending nearly two years in custody.
“I was stunned” by the court ruling, Aratz Beranoaguirre, a geologist, told AFP at the Madrid protest.
“Men have been educated with the idea that we can do anything, and with this ruling we have seen that you can rape and nothing happens.”
The crowd chanted: “They don’t believe us if they don’t kill us.”
Other protests were held in the southern city of Seville, the hometown of the five men, Pamplona — where the crowd held a large banner that read: “No is no. Justice!” outside of city hall — Granada, and elsewhere.
Thousands of people had already protested in Pamplona, Bilbao, Barcelona and other cities on Thursday after the court issued its ruling.
Women’s groups took to social media to call the protests with the slogan: “If the pack hits the streets, we will as well.”
Marches after the verdict in April brought tens of thousands of protesters out on to the streets.

“It is not fair that they are released with a sentence of nine years, and just a few days before San Fermin, they can even go there,” said Lucia Rodriguez, a 60-year-old protester in Madrid, referring to the upcoming running of the bulls festival which gets underway on July 6.
In its decision on Friday, the Navarre court said the five had been allowed out on bail because the social pressure on them made it “practically unthinkable” they would risk re-offending.
The men will remain under judicial monitoring. They have had their passports withdrawn and must report to court three times a week.
They are also banned from traveling to Madrid, where the victim lives.
One of the men is a policeman with the Guardia Civil — who is currently suspended — and another was once in the army. Several are “ultras” or hardcore fans of FC Sevilla.
The fact that the men videoed the attack on their smartphones and bragged about it within their WhatsApp group added to the outrage over the case.

The mayor of Pamplona, Joseba Asiron, said Friday his office would appeal the decision to release them, saying there was “a growing distance... between society itself and certain decisions taken by the courts.”
An online petition calling for the five to be kept behind bars had garnered 657,000 names by Friday night.
New socialist Justice Minister Dolores Delgado has not commented on the court decision, speaking only of a need to “change mentalities.”
The first step announced by the government of Pedro Sanchez, who took office earlier this month at the head of cabinet that includes 11 women, was to train magistrates in awareness about violence against women.
Noelia Garcia, 41, said she did not trust that the situation would change with a new government dominated by women.
“That is not enough. There needs to be a reform of the judicial system. Judges from another era need to be replaced,” she added at the Madrid protest.