Turkish forces stepped up their offensive against Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq, as the US warned Wednesday that the incursion should not last more than "a week or two".
The military said 77 members of the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) were killed overnight in what they called the heaviest clashes since its forces stormed the snow-bound mountains of northern Iraq last week.
That brought the army toll of PKK dead to 230, while its own losses climbed to 27 with the deaths since Tuesday evening of five soldiers and three "village guards", government-armed Turkish Kurd militiamen, the general staff said.
As fighter jets continued to pound rebel positions on the sixth full day of the incursion, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates made it clear that US support for its Nato ally was far from open-ended.
The offensive must end quickly, he said.
"I measure quick in terms of days, or a week or two, something like that. Not months," he said in New Delhi before flying to Ankara.
The US, which like Ankara, lists the PKK as a terrorist group, has been supplying the Turkish army with intelligence on PKK movements.
But Washington is also wary of the prospect of conflict between Turkish forces and the Kurdish administrators of northern Iraq - two key US allies with chilly ties.
Turkey has long accused the Iraqi Kurds of providing the PKK with a safe haven, weapons and ammunition.
Gates is expected in Ankara late Wednesday for talks Thursday with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President Abdullah Gul, Defence Minister Vecdi Gonul and the Chief of General Staff Yasar Buyukanit.
In its strongest reaction to date, the Iraqi government on Tuesday denounced the incursion as "unacceptable" and said it threatened bilateral relations.
Keen to allay Iraqi concerns, Ankara sent envoys to Baghdad Wednesday "to discuss ways of improving bilateral relations... in every field", the Foreign Ministry said.
The delegation - a senior diplomat and two close Erdogan aides - was to meet Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, both Kurds, as well as US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker.
Gates urged Ankara to back up military action with political and economic measures to win over its sizeable Kurdish community and erode popular support for the PKK. The group has waged an armed separatist campaign in southeast Turkey since 1984.
"They need to deal with some of the issues and complaints that some of the Kurds have and move this in a non-military direction in order to get a long-term solution," he said.
Erdogan is already under pressure at home to improve Kurdish rights, tackle rampant poverty in the southeast and issue an amnesty for PKK rebels to encourage them to lay down arms.
The military said warplanes and artillery maintained fire on rebel positions and hide-outs "deep" in the operation area Wednesday.
PKK leaders are believed to be in groups involved in fighting on the ground, it said.
Since the offensive began on February 21, troops partially or fully destroyed 312 PKK positions as warplanes and artillery hit 523 targets, among them anti-aircarft positions, logistic bases and command centres, it said.
The PKK claims to have killed around 90 soldiers, including five in an ambush Tuesday, and to have downed a Turkish attack helicopter.
In Washington, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Turkey had acted "responsibly so far" and urged cooperation between Ankara and Baghdad.
"We understand that Iraq does not want Turkey to be in their region but they also don't want the PKK up in their northern region and they understand what it's like to have terrorists attacking innocent civilians," she said.
Ankara says some 4,000 PKK rebels are holed up in northern Iraq, using the region as a springboard for attacks in Turkey.
More than 37,000 people have been killed since the PKK took up arms in 1984.For all the latest business news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.
Subscribe to Arabian Business' newsletter to receive the latest breaking news and business stories in Dubai,the UAE and the GCC straight to your inbox.