Turkey said Thursday its offensive against Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq will continue "as long as necessary", rejecting pressure for aspeedy end to the military incursionfrom US Defence Secretary Robert Gates.
As Gates held talks in Ankara, Turkish warplanes bombed separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) positions in northern Iraq and intensive fighting was reported on the ground near a major rebel base in the Zap area, Iraqi security sources said.
Turkish Defence Minister Vecdi Gonul and army chief Yasar Buyukanit offered no timetable for a pullout in their talks with Gates, who pressed for the incursion to be "as short and precisely targeted as possible".
"Turkey will remain in northern Iraq as long as necessary" and the troops will return home once PKK hideouts are destroyed, Gonul said.
"There is no need for us to stay there after we finish [off] the terrorist infrastructure... We have no intention to interfere in [Iraqi] domestic politics, no intention to occupy any area," he said.
Gates had said Tuesday that the offensive, launched on February 21, should last no longer than "a week or two" but Buyukanit made it clear that Turkey would not be constrained by deadlines.
"A short time is a relative term. Sometimes this can mean one day and sometimes one year," the army chief said.
"We have been fighting terrorism for 24 years and our struggle will continue," he said, adding that the US has been fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan "for years".
Ankara says an estimated 4,000 rebels use northern Iraq as a base in their campaign for self-rule in Turkey's mainly Kurdish southeast; the conflict has claimed more than 37,000 lives since the PKK took up arms in 1984.
The US, along with the EU, lists the PKK as a terrorist organization and has supported Nato ally Turkey by providing intelligence on PKK movements.
Gates played down suggestions the US could cut off the intelligence supply if Turkey refuses to withdraw quickly.
"We have shared interests and I think those interests are probably not advanced by making threats or by threatening to cut intelligence," he said.
But Washington is concerned that the incursion could broaden into a wider conflict between Turkish forces and the Iraqi Kurds, who run the autonomous administration of northern Iraq and are staunch US supporters.
Turkey has long accused Iraqi Kurds of providing the PKK with safe haven and weapons, and warned them this week not to shelter rebels fleeing the fighting.
Gates urged Ankara to consider political and economic improvements for its sizeable Kurdish community to erode popular support for the PKK.
"Military action alone will not end this terrorist threat... There must be simultaneous efforts made with economic programs and political outreach," he said. "That's the only way to isolate terrorism from the population and provide a long-term solution."
The Turkish government is already under pressure at home to improve Kurdish rights, tackle rampant poverty in the southeast and amnesty PKK rebels to encourage them to lay down arms.
Gates also met Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul before wrapping up his visit.
The Turkish army says it has so far killed at least 230 PKK militants and destroyed dozens of rebel hideouts, camps and ammunition depots, while losing 27 men.
The PKK claims to have killed around 100 soldiers, lost five and to have downed a Turkish attack helicopter.For all the latest business news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.
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