Many Kurds returning to northern Iraq from the mountains of Turkey appear to be bypassing refugee camps and heading straight to their villages, officials said Saturday, while diplomats prepared for trips to the gulf region to discuss the postwar situation.

Turkish President Turgut Ozal said there were 450,000 Kurdish refugees left in the mountains of Turkey, down from an estimated 600,000 that fled after allied forces defeated Saddam Hussein's army.The refugees, who for weeks lived in squalor in the Turkish mountains, began returning to northern Iraq last week when a multinational group established a refugee camp in a "safe zone" near the city of Zahko.

About 4,000 refugees had sought shelter in the camp by Saturday, and authorities said the number would have been higher except that many of the Kurds were returning to their homes.

The camp, with a capacity of 25,000, and a similar camp 75 miles away near Amadiya, are slated to be turned over to the control of United Nations this summer.

The refugee situation will be one of the items on the agenda of U.S. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, scheduled to leave Sunday for a four-day Persian Gulf trip. Cheney will meet with regional leaders to discuss a number of postwar issues, including security in the region. It will be his first trip to the gulf since the war ended two months ago.

Soviet Foreign Minister Alexander Bessmertnykh will visit Egypt next week as part of a four-nation Middle East tour, apparently designed to counter U.S. and European moves in the region, Egyptian Foreign Ministry sources said Saturday.

The sources said Bessmertnykh, who will discuss postwar security arrangements and efforts to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict, will meet with President Hosni Mubarak and his Egyptian counterpart, Esmat Abdel Meguid.

Bessmertnykh also will visit Jordan, Syria and Israel during his first tour in the region since he was appointed last year as Soviet Union's top diplomat.

His Mideast tour comes amid reports that the Soviet Union was seeking to restore its prestige in the region, severly shaken after the defeat of Iraq, its former key ally in the region, and the U.S. rejection of its diplomatic initiatives to end the war.

British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd arrived Saturday in the Saudi capital of Riyadh in the fourth and last leg of his four-nation Middle East tour to discuss the Arab-Israeli conflict and postwar issues.

Hurd has already made stops in Jordan and Kuwait. He was expected to meet with King Fahd and Prince Saud Al Faisal during his visit.