Kirkuk: Clashes broke out early Monday as Iraqi and Kurdish forces exchanged artillery fire south of the city of Kirkuk, peshmerga officers said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Iraqi military sources also reported exchange of Katyusha rocket fire to the south of the capital of the eponymous province, which is contested by both the central Iraqi government and the Kurdish autonomous region.
Iraqi forces and allied paramilitaries are “now advancing from Taza in South of Kirkuk in a major op with the intention to enter the city and takeover K1 base and oil fields,” the Kurdistan Regional Security Council wrote on Twitter, referring to the town of Taza Khurmatu.
An AFP photographer saw columns of Iraqi troops heading north from the town, which is located south of the city of Kirkuk.
Baghdad said Sunday that PKK fighters were among Kurdish forces in a standoff with the Iraqi army in the disputed oil province of Kirkuk, in what it said amounted to a “declaration of war”.
The National Security Council said it viewed as a “dangerous escalation” and 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).
“It is impossible to remain silent” faced with “a declaration of war towards Iraqis and government forces”, the council headed by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi said in a statement.
That statement came just hours before the expiry of a deadline for Kurdish peshmerga fighters to withdraw from areas they took in Kirkuk in 2014 during the fightback against Daesh.
Crisis talks on Sunday made little headway in resolving an armed standoff between Kurdish and Iraqi forces in the province.
Tensions have soared between the central government and Iraqi Kurds since they overwhelmingly voted for independence in a September 25 referendum, whose results Baghdad has demanded be nullified.
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 extremists.
On the fringes of the town, they used loudspeakers to call on the peshmerga to give up their positions, local sources said.
The “K1 base”, just eight kilometres north of Kirkuk, was one of the main Iraqi army bases before it was taken over by the peshmerga in 2014.
It stands near an oil refinery, The Iraqi troops also hope to retake the nearby airport.