The Turkish army said that its troops have returned to bases in Turkey after a major ground offensive against Kurdish PKK rebels in northern Iraq. FRANCE 24 correspondent Jasper Mortimer reports.
ANKARA, Feb 29 (Reuters) - Turkey wound down its major
ground offensive against Kurdish PKK rebels inside northern Iraq
on Friday, although it declined to confirm an Iraqi minister's
statement that it had already withdrawn all its troops.
Turkey sent thousands of soldiers into remote, mountainous
northern Iraq on Feb. 21 to crush rebels of the outlawed
Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) who use the region as a base for
attacks on Turkish territory. Washington feared the incursion
could destabilise an area of relative stability in Iraq.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari told Reuters:
"All the Turkish troops have withdrawn and gone back to the
Turkish side of the international border. We welcome this, we
think this is the right thing for Turkey to do."
A Turkish military source, speaking to Reuters on condition
of anonymity, confirmed only that Turkish forces had fully
withdrawn from the key Zap valley in northern Iraq, long a major
PKK stronghold, and most had already arrived back in Turkey.
Turkey's military General Staff said it would issue a
statement later on Friday.
Earlier, a U.S. official in Baghdad said: "We are seeing a
limited portion of the troops that had entered Iraq moving back
toward Turkey. (It's) too early to call this a withdrawal."
Turkey's political and military leaders have said the
operation will continue for as long as necessary but have come
under pressure from the United States, their NATO ally, to keep
the campaign as short and carefully targeted as possible.
On Thursday, U.S. President George W. Bush urged Turkey to
end the land offensive swiftly.
Washington, like Ankara and the EU, brands the PKK a
terrorist organisation, and has been supplying intelligence to
the Turkish military on the PKK in Iraq. But it fears that a
prolonged campaign could stoke regional instability.
Turkey's military says it has killed 237 rebels in the
eight-day ground offensive and suffered the loss of 24 soldiers.
The PKK says it has killed more than 100 Turkish troops but has
not given a figure for its own casualties.
During a brief visit to Ankara on Thursday, U.S. Defense
Secretary Robert Gates said he had failed to obtain a timetable
for a Turkish withdrawal.
It is Turkey's first major incursion into northern Iraq in a
Turkey's government had insisted the ground operation,
backed by warplanes, tanks, long-range artillery and attack
helicopters, would continue until PKK bases were erased and the
rebels no longer posed a threat to Turkey.
Iraqi Kurds, long suspicious of neighbouring Turkey, fear it
is seeking to undermine the autonomy of Iraq's oil-rich
Kurdistan region. Ankara says it wants only to end terrorism.
The PKK has been fighting for decades for ethnic rights and
self-rule in the mainly Kurdish southeast of Turkey.
But Turkish pressure has gradually squeezed it out of the
country, forcing it base itself in a remote, mountainous part of
northern Iraq that is outside the control of the semi-autonomous
northern Iraqi Kurdish administration.
Turkish leaders have come under domestic pressure to crack
down on the estimated 3,000 PKK members who stage deadly
cross-border attacks against Turkish military and civilians.
Ankara blames the separatist movement for the deaths of
nearly 40,000 people since 1984.
A senior Turkish military source said earlier this week that
around 10,000 troops were involved in the operation in Iraq,
mainly centred around the Zap valley. Some Turkish media have
reported that Zap has fallen.
Date created : 2008-02-29