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Thu 9 Oct 2008 07:48 AM

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Turkey extends mandate to strike PKK in Iraq

Decision comes as Kurdish rebels attack police bus in southeast of Turkey, killing five.

Turkey's parliament Wednesday extended the government's mandate to order strikes against Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq as an attack on a police bus in the country's southeast killed five people.

The assault came just days after rebels from the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) killed 17 soldiers in a daytime attack on a military outpost near the border with Iraq.

The motion, which gives the government another year-long authorisation for cross-border operations against PKK hideouts in northern Iraq, won backing from all parties in parliament, except the Democratic Society Party, the country's main Kurdish political movement.

Deputy parliament speaker Guldal Mumcu initially announced that 511 lawmakers had voted for the motion, but session minutes published later revised the number down to 497 as several deputies had cast multiple votes.

As parliament was in session, suspected PKK assailants opened fire on a bus carrying employees of the police academy in Diyarbakir, the main city in the Kurdish-populated southeast, killing the driver and four police officers.

Nineteen other officers were injured in the attack.

"These [attacks] will not daunt us. We will continue our struggle until the terrorist organisation lays down arms," Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said after the vote, using the official jargon for the PKK.

The bloodshed is likely to increase nationwide outrage triggered by Friday's attack, in which PKK rebels tried to take out an outpost in the border province of Hakkari, under cover of heavy weapons fire from northern Iraq.

The ensuing clashes killed 23 militants, the army said.

Security operations intensified inside Turkey after the assault and four militants were killed in Sirnak province late Tuesday, while a wounded soldier died in hospital in Diyarbakir, officials said Wednesday.

The motion leaves it up to the government to decide on the scope and timing of a cross-border operation and Erdogan said Tuesday that such an operation would be carried out "if need be, at the right time and under the right conditions."

The prime minister is to attend a meeting of civilian and military leaders, among them army chief Ilker Basbug, on Thursday to discuss fresh measures against the PKK, most likely including economic and social steps to erode support for the group.

"Tomorrow, we will look over our new road map and prepare the ground, I believe, for a decision for some steps that we will take," Erdogan said without giving details.

He said opposition calls to set up a military buffer zone inside northern Iraq to stop rebel infiltrations would also be discussed, but also signalled his reluctance about the move.

"If it is really necessary, we will take this step," he said.

Under the mandate that parliament renewed, the Turkish army has carried out several air strikes in northern Iraq as well as a week-long ground incursion in February.

The operations were backed by intelligence from the United States, which is nevertheless worried that a large-scale Turkish intervention could destabilise Iraq's relatively calm north.

Since January, Turkish forces have killed 640 PKK militants, about 400 of them in cross-border operations in northern Iraq, according to army figures.

Turkish officials charge that about 2,000 PKK rebels are holed up in the autonomous enclave, where they allegedly enjoy free movement, are tolerated by the region's Kurdish leaders and obtain weapons and explosives for attacks in Turkey.

Iraqi authorities have repeatedly pledged to curb the PKK, but say the group takes refuge in mountainous regions difficult to access.

The PKK - considered a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union - has been fighting for self-rule in the mainly Kurdish southeast and east of Turkey since 1984. The conflict has claimed some 44,000 lives.

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