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Sun 24 Feb 2008 03:45 PM

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US cautions Turkey as rebels call for urban warfare

Washington urges Ankara to take political and economic measures.

The US cautioned Turkey Sunday that military measures alone cannot resolve the Kurdish problem as separatist rebels urged urban violence in response to a major Turkish offensive against their camps in northern Iraq.

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, due in Ankara next week, defended Turkey's military action in northern Iraq against the rebel Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and played down concerns that it might destabilise Iraq.

But he stressed Turkish forces should "leave [Iraq] as quickly as they can accomplish the mission" and urged Ankara to take political and economic measures to win over its sizeable Kurdish community and erode popular support for the rebels.

"This is a difficult long-term problem, and in my view that's why it needs to be addressed in a comprehensive way," Gates said during a visit to Canberra, citing counter-insurgency lessons Washington has learned in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"Just using the military techniques are not going to be sufficient to solve the problems," he said.

The US, which like Turkey lists the PKK as a terrorist group, is providing its Nato ally with real-time intelligence on PKK movements.

Turkish troops crossed into northern Iraq Thursday evening in the largest cross-border offensive in years against PKK hideouts in the region, bombing rebel positions and fighting the militants on the ground.

At least 79 PKK fighters and seven soldiers have been killed and many rebel hideouts destroyed so far, according to the Turkish military.

The PKK, for its part, said 22 soldiers and two militants were killed. It also claimed to have downed a Turkish attack helicopter, a report unconfirmed by Ankara.

A senior PKK leader called for urban violence across Turkey in response to the offensive.

"The response... must be very strong," the Firat news agency, considered a PKK mouthpiece, quoted Bahoz Erdal as saying.

"If they want to wipe us out, our youths should make life in the cities unbearable... Kurdish youths should unite... and burn hundreds of cars every night," he said.

Erdal also slammed the US and the Iraqi Kurdish administrators of northern Iraq for helping Turkey in the raids.

"US reconaissance planes are overflying the region. They instantly convey to the Turkish army information about the position of our forces and then Turkish warplanes come and bomb," he said.

Erdal accused some Iraqi Kurdish groups of also being "involved in this ploy" and accused Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, also a Kurd.

"We have information that he [Talabani] has even invited the Turkish army to Qandil," he said, referring to the major PKK stronghold located in the mountains of the same name along the Iraqi-Iranian border.

The Qandil mountains were among the targets of intensive air raids Saturday, according to Turkey's semi-official Anatolia news agency.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari warned that the offensive should end quickly before it destabilises northern Iraq, whose Kurdish administration has already tense relations with Ankara.

"This is a limited military incursion into a remote, isolated and uninhabited region," Zebari told British broadcaster the BBC. "But if it goes on, I think it could destabilise the region, because really one mistake could lead to further escalation."

He complained that Baghdad had only been informed "in the last minute" before the incursion.

Gates urged Ankara to be more open with Baghdad and Kurdish regional authorities about its plans and intentions.

Turkey has assured that the operation targets only the PKK and that its troops will return home in the shortest possible time.

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.

The conflict has claimed more than 37,000 lives since the PKK took up arms in 1984.

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