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Wed 15 Oct 2008 04:35 PM

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Iraq, Turkey in talks over spate of air strikes

Iraqi PM meets Turkish envoys following strikes on Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki held talks on Tuesday with Turkish envoys following a string of air strikes launched by Ankara's forces in northern Iraq after a deadly Kurdish rebel attack.

Al-Maliki and Massud Barzani, president of Iraq's northern Kurdish region, met in the Iraqi capital with Turkey's Deputy Foreign Minister Murat Ozcelik, Al-Maliki's office said.

The conflict between Turkey and the rebel Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) conflict topped the agenda.

"Iraq feels anger and resentment to the PKK for its terrorist activities against neighbouring Turkey from Iraqi territory," the statement quoted Al-Maliki as saying.

Turkish warplanes have been bombing Kurdish rebel hideouts across the border in northern Iraq since an Oct. 3 attack by PKK militants against a Turkish border outpost that killed 17 soldiers.

Barzani's office chief Fuad Hussein described the two hour talks as "positive and constructive" and told newswire AFP that both sides had agreed to hold further discussions.

Ozcelik said the neighbouring countries had to take "decisive action to address the threat posed by the PKK terrorist organisation".

The Baghdad meeting came after President Abdullah Gul said the Turkish government would talk with Iraqi Kurds to resolve the problem, in line with a longstanding call from northern Iraq's regional Kurdish government.

Attaakhi newspaper, which is owned by Barzani's ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party, on Tuesday welcomed what it called a policy shift by Turkey.

"This is an important change in Turkey's policy because the government has always refused to hold direct dialogue with our government regarding cooperation and border issues to contain the PKK," it said.

Gul said on Saturday that Ankara would hold talks with the Iraqi Kurds and warned that "an authority vacuum" in the rugged mountains along the Turkish border was helping the PKK to use the area as a safe haven.

"There is nothing more normal than having dialogue with the northern Iraqis... in the struggle against terrorism," he said.

Turkish diplomats began meeting with Iraqi Kurdish officials in May after a long period of chilly ties, but after the PKK attack on the outpost, the Turkish army charged again that the Iraqi Kurds were aiding the rebels.

The PKK, listed as a terrorist group by Ankara and much of the international community, took up arms for Kurdish self-rule in the southeast in 1984, sparking a conflict that has claimed about 44,000 lives.

Turkish officials estimate about 2,000 PKK rebels are holed up in the mountains of northern Iraq, where they allegedly enjoy free movement and obtain weapons and explosives for attacks in Turkey.

The military commander of the PKK said that his organisation had the right to defend itself and accused Ankara of seeking conflict with Iraqi Kurds through its charges that they are sheltering rebel fighters in their autonomous region.

"Turkey wants to drag the Kurdistan region into war by accusing Iraqi Kurds of harbouring us," Murat Karayilan told AFP ahead of the meeting in his remote mountain hideout in northern Iraq.

Ankara has routinely accused Iraqi Kurds, who run the autonomous region, of tolerating, or even aiding the rebels, and long refused to hold discussions with Barzani's administration.

Iraqi authorities have repeatedly pledged efforts to curb the PKK, but say the group's hideouts are located in inhospitable, remote mountains.

On Wednesday, the Turkish parliament extended by one year the government's mandate to order cross-border military operations against the PKK in northern Iraq.

Turkish forces have killed about 640 PKK militants this year, some 400 of them in operations inside northern Iraq, according to army figures.

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