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Sun 24 Feb 2008 03:25 AM

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Turkish raids kill dozens in Iraq

Three-day-old ground offensive threatens to destabilise the region, warns Iraqi foreign minister.

Turkish troops killed 35 Kurdish militants and destroyed rebel hideouts in northern Iraq on Saturday, as Iraq's foreign minister warned the three-day-old offensive risked destablising the region.

The death toll brings to 79 the number of Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) militants killed since Turkey launched the offensive on Thursday evening to purge rebels from northern Iraq, a Turkish military statement said.

It added that two soldiers died in Saturday's clashes, bringing the total losses to seven.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari warned in a BBC interview that Turkey's ground offensive should end quickly before it destabilises the region.

"This is a limited military incursion into a remote, isolated and uninhabited region," Zebari said.

"But if it goes on, I think it could destabilise the region, because really one mistake could lead to further escalation."

He added that the Iraqi government had only been informed "in the last minute" before the raid.

The PKK, listed as a terrorist group by Ankara and much of the international community, threatened retaliatory attacks inside Turkey unless the offensive is halted.

"If not, we will move the theatre of combat to the heart of Turkish cities," PKK spokesman Ahmed Danis told newswire AFP.

The Turkish military suggested the actual PKK death toll was higher because it did not include militants killed in bombings or by artillery fire.

"Air Force planes, helicopter gunships and artillery fire destroyed terrorist refuge facilities... at different locations, together with large amounts of ammunition and explosives stored inside them," the statement said.

PKK positions, including anti-aircraft defence posts in the snow-bound mountainous region, were also destroyed, it said.

"The operation is continuing with determination," it said, adding that clashes were underway at four locations as of Saturday afternoon.

PKK leaders said 22 soldiers and two rebels had been killed, according to reports from the Firat news agency, considered a rebel mouthpiece.

Some of Saturday's most intensive air raids targeted the Qandil mountains, a major PKK stronghold along the Iraqi-Iranian border, and many militants were killed, unnamed sources told the semi-official Anatolia news agency.

There were intensive clashes on the ground in the Zap region, another prominent rebel hideout, and the Turkish army was sending reinforcements according to Firat.

Turkey's forces also bombed targets around Al-Amadiyah, an Iraqi Kurdish mountain town about 10 kilometres (six miles) south of the border, an Iraqi border guard told AFP.

In Cizre, a small border town on the Turkish side, soldiers patrolled hills along the frontier and dozens of armoured vehicles shuttled on the roads.

The Turkish military claimed the operation spread panic among the PKK, which is believed to have been caught by surprise by an offensive launched while snow was thick on the ground, and that its leaders were fleeing southwards into Iraq.

Turkish incursions, which were frequent in the 1980s and 1990s, were usually launched during the spring thaw when PKK militants began to sneak into Turkey from their winter bases in the rugged mountains.

In Ankara, Foreign Minister Ali Babacan sought to soothe Iraqi protests and Western misgivings over what was the largest ground incursion into Iraq by Turkey for years.

"The only target... is the PKK terrorist organisation," he told reporters. "Turkey is the strongest supporter of Iraq's territorial integrity and political unity".

Ankara says an estimated 4,000 PKK rebels are holed up in northern Iraq and use the region as a springboard for attacks on Turkish territory as part of their campaign for self-rule in Kurdish-majority southeast Turkey.

More than two decades of conflict have claimed at least 37,000 lives.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave assurances Friday that "the target, purpose, size and parameters of this operation are limited."

The soldiers will return home "in the shortest time possible as soon as they achieve their objectives," he said.

Iraqi exports of 300,000 barrels of oil per day through Turkey had not been affected, the Iraqi oil ministry said.

Turkish troops briefly entered Iraq on December 18 to stop a PKK unit from infiltrating Turkey. Five air raids on PKK targets in the region were also conducted since mid-December with US intelligence assistance.

The US said it was notified of the incursion beforehand and urged Ankara to limit the strikes to "precise targeting of the PKK" and to withdraw its soldiers in as short a time as possible.

One Turkish soldier was killed Saturday by a landmine explosion blamed on the PKK in Bingol, a Turkish province far from the Iraqi border.

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