Iraqi forces seized a key military base, an airport and an oil field from Kurdish fighters on Monday in disputed Kirkuk province 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 militant Islamic State (IS) group, aims to retake oil and military sites that Kurdish forces took over during the fightback against the fighters .
Thousands of residents were seen fleeing Kurdish-controlled Kirkuk city, according to an AFP journalist.
Iraqi and Kurdish peshmerga forces exchanged artillery fire early Monday south of the capital of the oil-rich province, after the launch of the operation overnight which triggered a spike in oil prices on world markets.
But after the initial clashes Iraqi forces made rapid progress, suggesting Kurdish fighters were withdrawing with little or no resistance.
Iraq’s Joint Operations Command said its forces had retaken the K1 military base northwest of Kirkuk, the military airport east of the city and the Baba Gargar oil field, one of six in the disputed region.
The operation follows 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.
Crisis talks on Sunday had made little headway in resolving the standoff, which has raised fears of fresh chaos just as IS jihadists are on the verge of losing their last strongholds in the country.