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Mon 22 Oct 2007 09:19 AM

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Kurdish guerrillas kill 17 soldiers

Turkey vows to take tough action against PKK, prepares to send troops to its hideouts in northern Iraq.

Turkey vowed on Sunday to take tough action after Kurdish guerrillas killed 17 of its soldiers, but said Washington had asked it to hold back for a few days more from sending troops to their hideouts in northern Iraq.

The attack, the worst in more than a decade by separatist rebels of the outlawed Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), came four days after Turkey's parliament overwhelmingly approved a motion to allow troops to enter northern Iraq to fight the guerrillas.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said after crisis talks with civilian and military leaders in Ankara that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had asked for a few days pause before any potential response.

"We expect the United States to take swift steps [against the PKK] befitting of our strategic partnership," Erdogan told a late-night news conference. His comments suggested Turkey was hoping for a last-minute response by Washington against the PKK.

The US, Turkey's Nato ally, is anxious to avert any Turkish military strikes against the PKK rebels in northern Iraq, fearing this could destabilise the region.

Turkey's tougher stance has already helped propel oil prices to record highs over the past week. The PKK has said it might target pipelines carrying Iraqi and Caspian crude cross Turkey.

Turkey has deployed as many as 100,000 troops, backed by tanks and attack helicopters, along the border. Military planes were seen landing at the airport of Diyarbakir, biggest city in the mainly Kurdish southeast, on Sunday night.

A statement issued by President Abdullah Gul's office said Turkey would pay whatever price was needed to defeat terrorism.

"While respecting the territorial integrity of Iraq, Turkey will not shy away from paying whatever price is necessary to protect its rights, its laws, its indivisible unity and its citizens," said the statement, issued after the crisis talks.

It made no direct mention of a possible military response.

Defence Minister Vecdi Gonul told reporters in Kiev after talks with US Defense Secretary Robert Gates that 17 soldiers had been killed, 16 injured and 10 others were still missing.

Asked if there would be a military response to those attacks near the Iraqi border, Gonul said: "Not urgently. They [Turkish troops] are planning a cross-border [incursion] ... We'd like to do these things with the Americans."

Gates said he did not believe Ankara would launch a major cross-border operation imminently. He also said Gonul implied there was reluctance to act unilaterally against the PKK.

Bush condemns PKK

US President George W. Bush condemned the attacks.

"Attacks from Iraqi territory need to be dealt with swiftly by the Iraqi government and Kurdish Regional authorities," White House National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said in a statement. "The United States, Turkey and Iraq will continue to stand together to defeat the PKK terrorists."

Turkey's military general staff said 32 rebels were killed in continuing clashes in the southeast. Turkey shelled areas inside Iraq on Sunday morning but no casualties were reported.

Abdul Rahman Jaderji, a senior official in the PKK in northern Iraq, said the rebels had killed 40 soldiers. The number could not be independently verified.

The pro-PKK Firat news agency, which is based in western Europe, said eight soldiers had also been taken hostage. Gonul denied any soldiers had been kidnapped.

"We cannot give details on how many we have captured, all I can say is that they are not in Iraq. They are in Turkey," a senior PKK source told Reuters.

In a separate incident on Sunday, a landmine killed a civilian and wounded at least 13 more in a minibus travelling in a wedding convoy near to where the soldiers were killed.

Ankara blames the PKK for the deaths of more than 30,000 people since the group launched its armed campaign for an ethnic homeland in southeast Turkey in 1984. The US, Turkey and EU class the PKK as a terrorist organisation.

Some 3,000 PKK rebels, including its leaders, are believed to be based in camps in the mountainous region of northern Iraq.

Iraq's government said it was taking important steps to end what it called the "terrorist actions" of the Kurdish rebels.

But Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani said his autonomous region would defend itself if Turkish troops invaded.

"We are not going to be caught up in the PKK and Turkish war, but if the Kurdistan region is targeted, then we are going to defend our citizens," Barzani told reporters after meeting Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who is also a Kurd.

Talabani called on the PKK to cease fighting and to turn itself into a political organisation. "If they insist on continuing to fight they must leave Iraqi Kurdistan," he said.

With the death toll among Turkish security forces around 40 for the past month alone, Erdogan's government is under heavy domestic pressure to pursue the PKK into northern Iraq.

Many Turkish cities staged anti-PKK rallies on Sunday. - Reuters

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