Turkish troops flock to Iraqi border as patience wears thin

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The Independent Online

Turkey has promised to continue diplomatic efforts to resolve the problem of Kurdish rebels based inside Iraq, even as its military units flood into Iraqi border areas after a Kurdish guerrilla attack that killed 12 soldiers on Sunday night.

"Parliament now has the authority to order cross-border operations," Foreign Minister Ali Babacan told reporters yesterday, referring to a vote held last week. "But it does not mean we have to use it. We favour finding solutions through diplomatic means."

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan left Ankara for London yesterday for a two-day visit that will include talks with Gordon Brown. He is due to meet President George Bush in Washington on 5 November.

The flurry of diplomatic activity has accompanied strong international opposition to a possible invasion.

In a telephone conversation with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Sunday night, Mr Erdogan said Turkey expected "speedy steps from the US" against the Kurdish rebels. Ms Rice expressed sympathy and asked "for a few days" from him.

The first fruit of US pressure became apparent yesterday afternoon, as Iraqi President Jelal Talabani, an ethnic Kurd, told reporters that rebels of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) would announce a ceasefire later in the day. Mr Talabani had called on PKK fighters to leave Iraq on Sunday.

Speaking by phone from the PKK's base in the Iraqi Kurdish mountains, a PKK spokesman confirmed the truce. However, the PKK has called a halt to hostilities several times since 2004. When Turkey began preparations for an invasion last summer, the Kurdish group also declared that it had put a stop to active operations.

Over 70 Turkish soldiers have died since then, 30 of them in the last fortnight, and the patience of the Turkish public has run out. In Turkey's south-eastern district of Hakkari, the military build-up has continued. Yesterday morning, locals said they saw at least 50 tanks travelling south towards Daglica, the border village that was the scene of the PKK ambush on Sunday. 50 more moved into Cukurca, a border town 25 miles west.

The Turkish army has forbidden journalists from Daglica. But Turkish analysts believe Turkish units have crossed into Iraq.

The editor of the liberal daily Radikal, Ismet Berkan, told CNN-Turk last night that "units may have gone up to eight kilometres into Iraq" to cut off the militants responsible for the attack. He said further incursions would aim to push PKK units back from the border towards their base camps, 50 miles further south.

Turkey's military said this afternoon that it had killed or captured 34 PKK members since Sunday. It also admitted that it had lost contact with eight soldiers. The PKK claims to have taken hostages.

A columnist for the daily Vatan, Rusen Cakir, is one of many analysts who believe cross-border operations are now unavoidable. "[Turkey] may wait two or three days, but they'll go in," he said. "The PKK aimed to internationalise this issue, and they have succeeded."

Street protests have continued in Turkey, and thousands of young men have offered their services to fight against the PKK.

The government called for calm after mobs attacked the offices of a Kurdish political party on Sunday. Several Kurds, who allegedly shouted pro-PKK slogans, were also attacked.

The hawkish government spokesman Cemil Cicek, after a cabinet meeting yesterday, said: "We did not pass this motion [on Iraq operations] so that we could leave it on the shelf."

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