ANKARA, Oct 30 2007 (IPS) - Clashes between Turkish army units and Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) guerrillas intensified during the weekend along Turkey's borders with northern Iraq and in the country's eastern province of Tunceli. Twenty suspected Kurdish rebels were killed, according to Turkish NTV network.
Fighting in the district of Pulumur began Sunday morning, involving 8,000 Turkish security troops, backed by helicopter gunships, who surrounded rural Dokuzkaya, Sariyayla, Kizilmescit and Zagge areas located in the Pulumur and Nazimiye districts of Tunceli. The highway that gives access to the rest of the province was cut off.
Tunceli is situated 650 kilometres (400 miles) northeast of Hakkari, the area on the Turkish-Iraqi border where the most recent attacks by PKK had taken place. Tunceli is a stronghold of Kurdish separatists.
Sources close to the government believe the attack followed information that PKK was planning subversive actions in Pulumur to coincide with the celebration of the 84th anniversary of the proclamation of the Turkish republic on Oct. 29.
Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) have launched several raids on PKK positions within northern Iraq since Friday. TSK has deployed 100,000 to 150,000 troops, tanks and heavy artillery along the frontier in preparation for a major offensive within Iraqi soil. Three thousand special security agents were posted during the weekend on key positions along the border.
The escalation of the hostilities has triggered anger in the ranks of the Iraqi government against Ankara.
In an interview Sunday to the BBC, Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari said the current crisis was "dead serious", and accused Turkey of not seeking a peaceful solution. He said Turkey had shown no interest in Iraqi proposals to calm the situation.
An Iraqi delegation held talks at the end of last week with the Turkish government, and proposed a solution which would prevent the PKK from using its northern Iraq bases to attack villages and military assets in Turkey. The proposal contemplated joint efforts between northern Iraqi defence forces, known as Peshmerga, and U.S. units.
Turkey declined the offer and reiterated its determination to handle the matter in its own way.
Zebari said Turkey demanded that Iraq hand over senior members of the PKK sheltered in Iraq, a request he said was impossible to fulfil.
A cross-border operation would have serious implications for Turkish-Iraqi relations and "disastrous consequences for both countries and the region," according to Zebari. "That's why the whole government of Iraq and the whole people of Iraq are united really not to see their sovereignty, their territorial integrity undermined by a friendly neighbouring country."
"This would be a unilateral decision, and that's why people are resisting it. (PKK) are not under our control, in fact. They are up in the mountains, they are armed," he said.
The Turkish press reported during the weekend that Zebari revealed to officials in Ankara that the PKK had threatened to blow up oil pipelines in northern Iraq if Baghdad tolerated the incursion.
The Iraqi government suspects that TSK may not stop their offensive once they have chased the PKK from the border, but could instead go deeper into the country and stay permanently in the region. Ankara has on occasion threatened to intervene in order to protect Turkmen populations throughout northern Iraq.
Baghdad fears the Peshmerga might clash with Turkish troops and set the entire region on fire for a long time.
Speaking Sunday to al-Jazeera TV, Massoud Barzani, president of the autonomous region of northern Iraq and head of the Peshmerga forces, insisted he would not hand over any PKK member to Turkey, but added that he would also not allow the area to be used as a base for a rebel group.
Regardless of Iraqi resentment, TSK is accelerating its preparations for a large-scale cross-border operation, and has put troops on high alert. Speaking to reporters, head of the armed forces General Yasar Buyukanit suggested, however, that a major deployment would not take place before Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had talks with U.S. President George W. Bush, scheduled for Nov. 5 in Washington.
"The armed forces will carry out a cross-border offensive when assigned," NTV television quoted Gen. Buyukanit as saying on Friday. "Prime Minister Erdogan's visit to the United States is very important; we will wait for his return."
The Bush administration has advised Turkey to abstain from fighting PKK on Iraqi soil and to find an alternative solution through tripartite arrangements with Baghdad and Washington.
"The Turks should not engage in over the border intervention. We have warned that responding in this way will affect the stability of the region. We have encouraged everyone to find a solution to this terrorist problem in a way which will not undermine the stability of northern Iraq," U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the U.S. House of Representatives last week.
It is unclear what the final position of Washington will be. The U.S. needs to improve its relationship with Ankara in order to secure the latter's support in the war effort in Iraq.
Meanwhile, the Turkish government is turning to Iran and Syria for their approval of an incursion into northern Iraq. Teheran and Damascus would like to see the Kurdish movement for independence crashed, as both are home to large Kurdish minorities totalling nine million people.
During a visit to Iran on Sunday to thank authorities for their help in combating the PKK, and to discuss other aspects of Turkish-Iranian cooperation, Turkish foreign minister Ali Babacan reiterated Ankara's decision to fight Turkish-Kurdish militias in Turkey and abroad.
Babacan met with Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, who contends that the United States and Israel support some Kurdish terrorist activities. Turkey's recent rapprochement with Iran and Syria may become embarrassing to the Bush foreign policy in the region.
Prime minister Erdogan has also been active during the weekend, blaming the European Union for its tolerance of PKK.
"No EU country has extradited members of the PKK to Turkey, despite labelling it a terrorist organisation," Erdogan said Saturday on Turkish TV.
He did not mention any European nation by name. But he did refer to a recent disagreement with Austria over its refusal to arrest a senior PKK member who then boarded a plane to northern Iraq.
Ankara has in recent weeks intensified its activity in EU capitals to gain support for the incursion. However, diplomatic sources in Ankara believe that it is unlikely that the European public opinion and media will be sympathetic with an invasion of northern Iraq. (END/2007)