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US to Turkey: halt Iraq offensive against PKK

Latest update : 2008-02-28

The US are raising concern about the Turkish offensive against Kurdish rebels in Iraq, fearing it could disrupt regional stability. But Turkey has so far refused to commit to a timetable. (Report: O.Fairclough)

ANKARA, Feb 28 (Reuters) - The United States called on
Thursday for NATO ally Turkey to end its major ground offensive
against Kurdish PKK rebels in northern Iraq as soon as possible,
but Ankara said it would stay until the job was done.

 The head of Turkey's military General Staff, General Yasar
Buyukanit, was quoted by CNN Turk as saying: "A short time is a
relative concept, it could be one day or one year."

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters in Ankara
that he had been given no timetable for a Turkish withdrawal.

"The key is for us to make clear what our interests are, our
concerns about the situation in Iraq," he said after meeting
Turkey's defence minister.

Washington fears that a prolonged Turkish operation will
undermine stability in the region, particularly Iraq, though it
backs Ankara's mission to crush the PKK and late last year began
providing significant intelligence to do so.

"It should be clear that military action alone will not end
this terrorist threat," Gates added, saying Ankara must also
take political and economic steps to isolate the PKK guerrillas
and help support Turkey's large ethnic Kurdish minority.

Turkey's Defence Minister Vecdi Gonul said troops, battling
icy winter conditions, would remain in Iraq as long as necessary
to accomplish their goal of ending the PKK threat from bordering
northern Iraq.

Thousands of Turkish troops, backed by warplanes and attack
helicopters, crossed the border on Feb. 21 to root out Kurdistan
Workers Party (PKK) fighters and destroy their numerous bases.

It is Turkey's first major ground offensive against the PKK
in northern Iraq in a decade.

The outlawed PKK has been gradually squeezed out of Turkey
and instead has been using remote mountainous northern Iraq as
their main base in their decades-long armed campaign for
self-rule in the mainly Kurdish southeast of Turkey.

Gates also held talks with Buyukanit, President Abdullah Gul
and Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.

Ankara blames the separatist movement for the deaths of
nearly 40,000 people since it began its armed struggle in mainly
Kurdish southeast Turkey in 1984.

Turkish leaders have come under renewed domestic pressure to
crack down on the estimated 3,000 PKK members, including its
leadership, who use northern Iraq as a base to stage deadly
cross-border attacks against Turkish military and civilians.



Senior military sources in southeast Turkey told Reuters
several hundred Turkish soldiers were ferried across the border
by helicopter into northern Iraq on Wednesday evening.

A senior military source said around 10,000 troops were
involved in the northern Iraqi operation, much centred around
the Zap valley, a PKK stronghold.

Several hundred special forces, backed by soldiers, were
leading the charge against rebel camps across an isolated part
of northern Iraq, which is not under the control of the
semi-autonomous northern Iraqi Kurdish administration.

The Bush administration has been sharing intelligence with
its chief military ally in the region, mainly to help its aerial
bombing campaign to destroy PKK havens. If Ankara does not heed
Washington's call to complete the operation quickly, Washington
could curtail or cut off that intelligence flow.

But Gates played down any differences.

"What is important is to serve both the interests of the
United States and Turkey because I think we have shared
interests," he said.

"I think that those interests are probably not advanced by
making threats, by threatening to cut off intelligence."

Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek tried to quell
mounting international concern about the cross-border offensive.

"No one should be concerned. We will leave Iraq as soon as
we are done. We are not intending to remain any longer than
necessary in minus 26 degree temperatures," he told the English
language daily Today's Zaman.

Turkey's military General Staff has put the death toll among
the PKK rebels at 230 since the campaign began. Twenty four
soldiers have been killed so far, and more funerals were planned
in Turkey for Thursday.

The PKK says that more than 100 Turkish troops had been
killed. It has not given a figure for rebel casualties.

Ankara says it is engaged in a legitimate fight against what
it and Washington describe as a terrorist organisation.

Acting Iraqi Prime Minister Barham Saleh said on Wednesday a
prolonged Turkish operation would lead to dire consequences for
the region and repeated Baghdad's demand that the incursion end.

Erdogan's chief foreign policy adviser, Ahmet Davutoglu,
said after talks in Baghdad on Wednesday that his government had
approached Baghdad several times for help to combat the PKK. He
said Iraq was not capable of dealing with the rebels, given its
preoccupation with security threats elsewhere in Iraq.

Date created : 2008-02-28