61,000 flee Kirkuk as Iraq says Kurdish independence ‘a thing of the past’

61,000 flee Kirkuk as Iraq says Kurdish independence ‘a thing of the past’
After the Iraqi army took over Kirkuk, Baghdad has said that Kurdish independence is “a thing of the past” and the controversial referendum should be forgotten, as the UN says 61,000 people have fled the northern city of Kirkuk.

“In the past 48 hours, the UN Migration Agency says that some 61,000 people have left Kirkuk and surrounding areas, most of them heading north and east toward the Erbil and Suleimania governorates,” Stéphane Dujarric, Spokesperson for the Secretary-General, told reporters Tuesday. “We call on all parties to ensure that civilians are protected and [that they] can leave affected areas if they choose.”

Both Iraqi and Kurdish leaders have called for a "peaceful solution" to the current crisis. However, while the Baghdad official announced the controversial referendum should be forgotten, the Kurdish leader assured his nation's efforts for independence were not in vain.

"The loud voices you raised for the independence of Kurdistan that you sent to all nations and world countries will not be wasted now or ever," Masoud Barzani said in a statement  Tuesday, adding that "the Kurdistan nation... sooner or later, will eventually reach its right and sacred objective."

Barzani also decried the apparent split among the Kurdish ruling forces. The recent Peshmerga withdrawals from the disputed areas, such as the city of Kirkuk and other regions now under control of Iraqi army and Iranian-backed Shiite forces, "was the result of unilateral decisions of some persons within a certain internal political party of Kurdistan," he claimed, without specifying further.

Saying that he and his supporters "are doing our utmost to preserve our achievements," Barzani called for unity within the Kurdish nation and urged for "peaceful solutions."

On Tuesday, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who belongs to the Shiite majority, also called for a dialogue with the Kurdish leadership "under the constitution."

READ MORE: Iraq plans to build new refinery in seized Kirkuk – oil ministry

PM Al-Abadi, however, apparently denounced the recent Kurdish independence referendum. It "is finished and has become a thing of the past," he told journalists in Baghdad.

This week, Baghdad has deployed the army to "impose security" in the resource-rich province of Kirkuk. Iraqi troops have seized control over several key Kurdish Peshmerga-held positions in the region. The Kurdish Peshmerga forces proclaimed the takeover "a flagrant declaration of war."

Up to 11 people might have been killed in Monday clashes between Iraqi and Kurdish forces, Reuters reported, citing US military personnel present in Iraq as part of Washington-led anti-terrorist operation in the region.

The White House has previously said it would not be "taking sides" in the battle between the two US allies.