Turkey’s leadership will hold off on ordering an offensive against Kurdish guerrilla bases

ISTANBUL, Turkey – Turkey’s leadership will hold off on ordering an offensive against Kurdish guerrilla bases in northern Iraq until the prime minister visits Washington early next month, the military chief said Friday.

The country’s civilian leaders, meanwhile, said they were not satisfied with proposals from Iraq’s U.S.-backed government for dealing with Turkish Kurd separatist fighters who take shelter across the border.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan plans to travel to Washington on Nov. 5 to meet with President Bush in what is widely expected to be the climax of frantic diplomatic activity aimed at averting a major Turkish incursion.

The top U.S. military commander in northern Iraq said he plans to do “absolutely nothing” to counter Kurdish rebels who are staging deadly cross-border attacks into neighboring Turkey. It was the most blunt assertion yet by an American official in the last few weeks that U.S. forces should not be involved in the fight.

Military momentum and public calls for action are building in Turkey, fueled by rebel attacks that have killed dozens this month. Turkish aircraft reportedly bombed more suspected rebel hideouts inside Turkey on Friday, and big crowds gathered across the nation this week demanding a crackdown.

A military campaign in northern Iraq worries Washington because it could upset one of the few relatively tranquil areas in Iraq. It also would put the U.S. in an awkward position between key allies: NATO member Turkey on one side and the Baghdad government and the north’s self-governing Iraqi Kurds on the other.

At the same, Turkish leaders have been reluctant to send the army across the mountainous border, fearing it could get bogged down in a prolonged and perhaps inconclusive conflict while suffering damage to its international alliances. Previous incursions failed to quell the PKK.

“The armed forces will carry out a cross-border offensive when assigned,” private NTV television quoted the military chief, Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, as saying. “Prime Minister Erdogan’s visit to the United States is very important; we will wait for his return.”

For months, Turkey has repeatedly demanded more help from the United States and Iraq in its fight against the rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known by its Kurdish acronym PKK. The group, which has been fighting for autonomy for the predominantly Kurdish population in southeastern Turkey since 1984, is labeled a terrorist group by Washington and the European Union.

Erdogan is likely to repeat appeals for a crackdown in northern Iraq when he talks with Bush, whose administration has been preoccupied with trying to curb violence and political chaos elsewhere in Iraq.

But there is a strong sense among Turks that any assurances of action from Washington will amount to little, and public demands are growing for swift, forceful action against the PKK. The government has said the U.S. and Iraq must act quickly if they want to forestall an incursion.

“We will go to the United States on Nov. 5 and we will openly talk about these issues with the president,” Erdogan said on returning from a trip to Romania.

“Turkey has done all necessary lobbying efforts with countries in the Middle East and European Union countries and primarily with the United States” ahead of a possible cross-border offensive, he said.

Foreign Minister Ali Babacan was scheduled to fly to Iran on Saturday to discuss the crisis.

The Bush administration has said repeatedly that the border crisis should be resolved through diplomacy.

Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, the top U.S. military commander in northern Iraq, said Friday it was not the U.S. military’s responsibility to act against PKK rebels operating from the region. He said he had sent no additional American troops to the border area and was not tracking hiding places or supply activities of PKK guerrillas.

Speaking to Pentagon reporters from a U.S. base near Tikrit in northern Iraq, Mixon also said he had not seen Iraqi Kurd authorities move against the rebels.

“I have not seen any overt action,” he said. “But those are the types of activities that are managed and coordinated at higher levels than my own.”

Turkey’s government said it was disappointed with an Iraqi delegation, including the defense minister, that held meetings in Ankara on Friday to try to defuse the crisis. The Iraqis suggested reinforcing border posts and setting up new ones to prevent illegal crossings and reviving a negotiation process among Iraq, Turkey and the U.S. that stalled earlier this year.

The Iraqis also pledged to do everything possible to help free eight Turkish soldiers who were allegedly captured by guerrillas in an ambush Sunday if they were being held in Iraq.

“The Iraqi side is approaching the issue with good will, but we have seen that the Iraqi delegation came to us with ideas that would take time to implement,” Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement. Turkey wants “urgent and determined” steps from Iraq, it said.

Turkey also is demanding the extradition of Kurdish rebel leaders based in Iraq’s north in order to “finish off the group,” Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek said. CNN-Turk television, citing unidentified Iraqi officials, said Turkey asked for the extradition of 153 PKK members.

The CNN-Turk report also said the Iraqi delegation claimed Iraq’s government could hand over at least 18 PKK members. Iraqi leaders have said publicly that they don’t have the ability to go after Kurdish rebel leaders hiding in remote mountainous areas.

Any Iraqi action against the PKK would require cooperation from the north’s Iraqi Kurd administration, which is unlikely to move forcefully against its ethnic brethren from Turkey. Iraqi Kurds suspect the Turks want to cross the border to curb Kurdish separatist aspirations for oil-rich northern Iraq, fearing that will further encourage rebellious Kurds in Turkey.

“The PKK is not a licensed party with known offices and officials in the north of Iraq,” said Jamal Abdullah, a spokesman for the autonomous Kurdish regional government. “I do not know how we are supposed to arrest people who are unknown to us. They might be situated in mountainous area near the border or they might be in Turkey itself.”

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Turkey demands Kurd rebel extraditions

ANKARA, Turkey – Turkey demanded the extradition of Kurdish rebel leaders based in Iraq’s north, the deputy prime minister said Friday after meeting with an Iraqi delegation. Turkish war planes and helicopters, meanwhile, reportedly bombed separatist hideouts within the country’s borders.

Despite repeated Turkish demands for more action from both the United States and Iraq, U.S. Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon said he plans to do “absolutely nothing” to counter Kurdish rebels operating from the region.

The top American military commander in northern Iraq said it is not the U.S. military’s responsibility to act. Mixon also said that he has sent no additional American troops to the area and is not tracking hiding places or logistics activities of the rebels from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known by its Kurdish acronym PKK.

He also has not seen Kurdish authorities move against the rebels either, Mixon told Pentagon reporters by videoconference from a U.S. base near Tikrit in northern Iraq.

“I have not seen any overt action (by Kurdish authorities) … But those are the types of activities that are managed and coordinated at higher levels than my own,” he said.

Iraq’s defense minister and other ranking members of the government held talks with Turkish officials to try to defuse tensions over the PKK rebels.

“We gave a list of PKK leaders and asked for help from Iraq,” Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek told CNN-Turk television.

CNN-Turk television, citing unnamed Iraqi officials, said Turkey asked for the extradition of 153 PKK members. The station also said Iraqi officials claimed they could hand over at least 18 PKK members. Iraqi leaders have said they had no power to go after Kurdish rebel leaders in mountainous areas and capture them.

Cicek, however, said Turkey wanted the arrest of all PKK members “to finish off the group.” Turkey believes that the anti-rebel measures proposed by the Iraqi delegation were unsatisfactory, according to private NTV and CNN-Turk, which cited unnamed Foreign Ministry officials.

The state-run Anatolia news agency reported that Turkish aircraft attacked suspected rebel positions that were detected during reconnaissance flights. There were no reports of guerrilla casualties.

Cicek reiterated Turkey’s determination to carry out an offensive if the U.S.-backed Iraqi government and Iraqi Kurdish administration, which is in charge of security in northern Iraq, do not crack down on the rebel group.

“We will use our right stemming from international laws until the end,” he said.

He said Turkey’s struggles with the PKK go beyond the rebel group’s estimated 3,000 to 3,500 members.

“Today, the PKK is a group that receives the most support, logistical aid, weapons and propaganda support from several countries,” he said, without naming any countries.

Cicek, talking about past military incursions, also said the main rebel base was located deep inside Iraqi territory on Mount Qandil and was hard to target in a ground offensive.

“There has been raids by the Air Force against Qandil but there has been no ground attack, it sits too deep inside Iraq, it is not easy,” Cicek said.

The Iraqis’ visit came before a regional summit next week when Turkey is scheduled to host foreign ministers for a meeting about Iraq.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has proposed a meeting involving the United States, Iraq and Turkey during the Nov. 1-3 conference in Istanbul. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expected to go to Washington almost immediately afterward to meet with President Bush.

Turkish officials have been frustrated by the failure of both U.S. forces in Iraq and Iraqi forces to stop the Kurdish attacks, which have claimed 42 lives in Turkey this month alone. If they do not act soon, Turkey has threatened to send troops across the border.

Washington opposes a unilateral military move by its NATO ally, fearing it would destabilize Iraq’s north.

Erdogan said Thursday the U.S. desire to preserve the north’s relative stability would not deter Turkey.

The Turkish military said it spotted a “group of terrorists” near the border with Iraq on Tuesday and fired on them with tanks, artillery and other heavy weaponry. It said the group was preparing for an attack.

AP Television News filmed Turkish troops on foot patrol, sweeping for mines and securing the roads while a military helicopter flew overhead in the province of Sirnak near the border.

The PKK is labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S. and the European Union. Its 23-year fight for autonomy in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast has claimed tens of thousands of lives.

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‘Positive’ Turkey-Iraq talks resume: Iraqi official

ANKARA (AFP) – Crisis talks between Iraqi and Turkish ministers over threats of a Turkish strike on northern Iraq resumed Friday afternoon, an Iraqi embassy source here said.

Iraqi defence ministry spokesman Muhammed Askeri earlier said a first round of talks in the morning had produced “positive” results.

The talks are being held at an Ankara hotel between Iraq’s Defence Minister Abdel Qader Mohammed Jassim and National Security Minister Shirwan al-Waeli and Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan and Interior Minister Besir Atalay.

Commenting on the morning talks that lasted only 90 minutes, Askeri said: “Very important talks are under way. There are positive results, everything is happening as planned.”

A working lunch preceded the second round of talks, in which the two Iraqi Kurdish representatives are also present, the Iraqi embassy source said.

The Turkish side has refrained from all comment on the discussions aimed at dissuading Ankara from launching military incursions against bases of the armed separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the mountains of northern Iraq.

Tensions have risen since the Turkish parliament last week authorised the government to order military incursions against the bases of the PKK, which has been waging a bloody campaign for self-rule in southeast Turkey since 1974.

They peaked after the PKK ambushed a military patrol on Sunday, killing 12 soldiers and capturing eight.

The Turkish army has since massed men and materiel along the border and reported it had killed more than 60 Kurdish rebels in fighting since Sunday’s ambush.

Turkey has long complained of what it calls US and Iraqi inaction in dealing with the PKK in northern Iraq, where the rebels enjoy safe haven.

Washington and Baghdad have vowed to make good on promises to crack down on the PKK, but Turkish leaders, facing strong domestic pressure for rapid military action, have voiced mounting exasperation.

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Turkish planes bomb Kurdish rebels

(CNN) — Turkish warplanes and helicopter gunships have been bombing Kurdish separatist positions in Turkey along the Iraqi-Turkish frontier amid continuing diplomatic efforts to avert a major cross-border incursion by Turkish military forces.

CNN Turk, citing Turkish government and military sources, reported the activity and said it had been taking place since Sunday.

The Dogan News Agency also told CNN that aerial strikes had been going on for days, with several F-16 warplanes loaded with bombs taking off from an air base in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir.

Anadolu news agency reported that aircraft-backed “counter-terrorism operations” were “under way” in southeastern Turkey.

Public pressure is mounting in Turkey for the government to authorise a major strike against Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighters accused of mounting attacks against Turkish forces and civilians from bases across the border in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region.

Thousands of mourners took to the streets Tuesday for the funerals of 12 soldiers killed in an ambush Sunday.

Meanwhile a Denmark-based Kurdish TV station, Roj TV, broadcast footage it claimed showed eight troops captured by the PKK in the same attack. The film showed eight men standing against a PKK flag with mountains in the background.

The Web site of PKK’s military wing quoted a commander who blamed Erdogan himself for the deaths of the soldiers and “the POWs that we now have.”

Turkey’s military has confirmed that eight soldiers are missing but not reports that they were taken hostage.

Turkey has repeatedly called on Iraq and the U.S. to crackdown on PKK operations within Iraqi territory. The PKK is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., the European Union and Turkey.

But with tens of thousands of troops in place along Iraq’s northern frontier, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters during a visit to London on Tuesday that cross-border raids targeting the PKK could be launched “at any time” — and warned Turkey could not “wait forever” for a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki reiterated an Iraqi pledge to shut down PKK offices in the north of the country and said Iraq would not allow its territory to be used as a “launch pad” for attacks on Turkey.

“The government will do its best in order to limit the PKK and its terrorist activities that are a threat to Iraq just like it is a threat to Turkey,” al-Maliki said, following a visit to Baghdad on Tuesday by Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan.

In a statement issued on Tuesday, the Presidency of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq called on the PKK to abandon its armed struggle.

“The current problems should be solved through political and diplomatic methods,” the statement urged.

“It is necessary to stop using other methods, which are useless, and we demand that the PKK remain committed to the cease fire and not resort to armed operations.”

But Babacan, speaking in Baghdad after meetings with Iraqi leaders, said: “We need more than words. We said that preventing the PKK from using Iraqi soil, an end to logistical support and all PKK activities inside Iraq and closing of its camps are needed. We also said its leaders need to be arrested and extradited to Turkey.”

Babacan also rejected reports of a unilateral PKK cease-fire, saying that a cease-fire was something that could only be agreed “between two countries or two militaries, and not with a terrorist organization.”

The Iraqi central government and Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government are concerned that cross-border action would violate Iraq’s territorial integrity and plunge a region that has escaped the worst of the four-year-old Iraq war into conflict.

The U.S. fears Turkish strikes against the PKK could destabilize the American-backed government in Baghdad and jeopardize supply lines for its 160,000-plus troops in Iraq. Washington has launched a major diplomatic push to persuade Iraq to move against the PKK and to keep Turkey — a NATO ally — from launching an attack.

Earlier this week, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in a joint statement with British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, called for a conference to be held in Istanbul, Turkey, next month to discuss diplomatic solutions to the crisis.

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