WASHINGTON - Iranian artillery bombed Kurdish militants in northern Iraq on Monday, injuring at least three people and forcing hundreds to flee their homes, Kurdish officials told VOA.
The cross-border shelling in Iraqi Kurdistan's Haji Omaran region targeted positions of Iranian Kurdish rebel groups Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (KDPI) and Komala, Kurdish officials said.
"The shelling started at 5 a.m. [local time] and continued for several hours, forcing hundreds of civilians from nearby villages to flee their homes," Farzang Ahmad, the local administrator of the Haji Omaran sub-district in Iraqi Kurdistan, told VOA.
Ahmad added that one villager and two rebels were injured and many local farmers' livelihoods were destroyed as a result of the shelling.
"The Republic of Iran's justification for the attack is the presence of Iranian Kurdish rebels in the border region with Iraq," he said.
Iran is home to roughly 10 million Kurds who mostly live in the northwest of the country, close to Iraqi and Turkish Kurdish communities across the border.
Kurdish armed groups, such as KDPI and Komala, have been in conflict with the Iranian government for decades, and are seeking greater autonomy for the areas inhibited by ethnic Kurds. These armed Kurdish groups are widely spread across the 60-kilometer border with neighboring Iraq.
The mountainous nature of the terrain makes it difficult for the Iranian government to control the area.
To diminish the growing activity of the Iranian Kurdish rebels, the country's military has bombed areas inside the Iraqi border on several occasions in the past, drawing criticism from Iraqi Kurdish officials who charge that civilians bear the brunt of the bombing.
The Iranian government has not commented on Monday's shelling, but Iraqi Kurdish officials say the bombing was carried out in response to the killing of an Iranian commander and injuring two Iranian border guards during clashes in Kermanshah province on Saturday.
Mustafa Mauludi, the secretary general of KDPI, denied his group's involvement in the killing and added that no other Kurdish group has claimed responsibility for Saturday's attack.
Mauludi accused Iran of initiating escalations with Kurdish rebels and breaking a two-decades-old cease-fire in 2015.
"The Islamic Republic of Iran has been attacking us for years now, thinking we will abandon our struggle," Mauludi told VOA. "We have persisted our struggle despite difficulties and we will continue to do so."
Escalation of fighting
The predominately Kurdish province in northwestern Iran situated in the border region with Iraq has recently witnessed an escalation of fighting between Kurdish armed groups and Iranian border guards.
Iranian officials say that they have expelled the Kurdish rebels from the province.
"Thanks to efforts of the armed forces and struggles of the intelligence forces, security is in place on the border lines," Asadollah Razani, Kermanshah province governor general, said last Thursday.
Razani added that Iranian forces are closely monitoring the border region with Iraq and "any suspicious move will receive strong response."
However, Kurdish rebel leader Mauludi told VOA that his group receives broad support from the Kurdish population in Iran and that conflict in the province may continue "until [the] Kurdish issue is resolved."
He told VOA that continued Iranian attacks will more likely encourage Kurdish rebel groups to unify against the Iranian government forces.
"We have been in dialogue with other Kurdish parties in Iran for a while to develop a long-term cooperation mechanism and a mutual platform that will help us be more prepared for future challenges," Mauludi said.