Turkey winds up week-long Iraq incursion

Military denies withdrawal hasty decision taken under US pressure.
Turkey winds up week-long Iraq incursion
OBJECTIVES COMPLETE: Turkey said its offensive in northern Iraq was a success. (AFP)
Sat 01 Mar 2008 12:28 PM

Turkish forces pulled out from northern Iraq Friday, ending a week-long offensive against Kurdish rebels that the US feared could fuel a broader conflict in the region.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan however said Ankara would continue to fight the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and urged its militants to lay down their arms.

The Turkish military denied the withdrawal was a hasty decision taken under US pressure and said its forces, who stormed into northern Iraq on February 21, had achieved their objectives.

It said the offensive had dealt a serious blow to the rebel group, with at least 240 militants killed and dozens of hideouts, training camps and ammunition depots destroyed.

US President George W. Bush had urged Turkey Thursday to pull out "as quickly as possible" and Defence Secretary Robert Gates personally put pressure on Turkish leaders during talks in Ankara.

Washington, which backed the offensive with intelligence on PKK movements, reasserted support for its Nato ally after the pullout.

"There is one thing that remains clear, and that is the United States, Turkey, and Iraq all will continue to view the PKK as a terrorist organization that needs to be dealt with," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.

The Turkish army however said the PKK - listed as a terrorist group by Ankara and much of the international community - had not been wiped off.

"But they were shown that northern Iraq is not a safe region for them," the general staff said in a statement.

The offensive included ground assaults and air raids and targeted rebel positions in and around Zap, a mountainous snow-bound region near the Turkish border, where a major PKK base and training camp is located.

The PKK, however, has another major stronghold in the Qandil mountains further to the southeast, along the Iraq-Iran border, and hundreds of militants inside Turkey.

Erdogan urged the rebels to lay down their arms and called on Turkey's sizeable Kurdish community to pursue their demands peacefully.

"One cannot reach anywhere by the way of terror," he said in a televised address. "Our democracy is mature enough to embrace all kinds of differences and all kinds of political opinions as long as they are on legal ground."

The PKK took up arms for self-rule in Kurdish-majority southeast Turkey in 1984, sparking a conflict that has claimed more than 37,000 lives.

Erdogan appealed to Baghdad to help uproot the PKK from northern Iraq.

"We should not allow [the PKK]... to poison our ties," he said. "Turkey and Iraq must work together to get rid of this problem - there is no other way."

Washington was concerned that a prolonged incursion could fuel tensions between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds, who run autonomous northern Iraq.

Ankara has long accused Iraqi Kurds of providing the PKK with safe haven and weapons.

The army said elite commando units conducted the operation, but gave no numbers. It said it lost 27 men and gave assurances that no Iraqi civilians were harmed.

Dozens of vehicles loaded with soldiers crossed into Turkey from the border town of Cukurca Friday morning, while empty vehicles winded up mountain roads in the opposition direction to pick up more troops.

The military insisted the withdrawal was decided "under no external or internal influence" and warned of similar incursions again in the future.

"The struggle against terrorism will be pursued with determination at home and abroad," it said.

A one-year parliamentary authorisation for cross-border military action expires in October.

Ankara says an estimated 4,000 PKK rebels enjoy refuge in northern Iraq.

The PKK claimed to have killed around 100 soldiers, lost five of its own and downed a Turkish attack helicopter during the offensive.

"We do not want war, we want peace. If they will give up the attacks we are ready to solve these troubles in a peaceful way," PKK spokesman Ahmed Danis told newswire AFP Friday.

Ankara is also under pressure to undertake political and economic reforms to win over the Kurdish community and erode support for the PKK.

Kurdish activists have also called for an amnesty for the PKK to encourage it to disband.

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