Iraq warns Turks to respect its borders as fighting intensifies

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Fighting between Turkish troops and Kurdish PKK guerrillas in northern Iraq intensified yesterday, the third day of Turkey's largest incursion into the region since Saddam Hussein's removal in 2003.

Turkish security sources said troops had killed 11 rebels, taking the PKK death toll to 55. The rebel Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) said 22 soldiers were dead and five guerrillas wounded. Turkey's army confirmed the deaths of five soldiers.

Iraq's government has called on Turkey to respect its sovereignty and avoid harming civilians. "Military operations will not solve the PKK crisis," said Iraqi government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh.

Washington is sharing intelligence with Turkey, a Nato ally, on PKK movements in Iraq. It urged Ankara to limit operations to precise rebel targets and bring them to a swift end.

"Intelligence suggests the so-called leaders [of the rebels inside Iraq] are in a panic and trying to flee the region by moving south," Turkey's military staff said.

There have been conflicting reports about the scale of the invasion. A Turkish military source claimed two brigades of 8,000 troops, are taking part, while Iraqi officials and coalition forces in Baghdad suggested the number was no more than a "few hundred".

The military is anxious to avoid possible clashes with Iraqi Kurdish security forces and said the PKK was the sole target. Kurdish President, Massoud Barzani, said the regional government did not want to enter the conflict, but warned that if the Turks struck civilian targets: "We will order a large-scale resistance."

Turkey's government and military have come under heavy domestic pressure to crush the PKK after a series of deadly attacks on their troops late last year. Ankara says it has the right under international law to hit the PKK in Iraq, where it estimates some 3,000 rebels are based. It secured parliament's authorisation to carry out cross-border operations in October and has been bombing the PKK in northern Iraq since then. Ankara blames the PKK for the deaths of nearly 40,000 since the group began fighting for an ethnic Kurdish homeland in south-east Turkey in 1984. Washington and the EU brand the PKK terrorists and fear a long campaign not only risks serious clashes with Iraqi Kurdish forces but may undermine the fragile government in Baghdad.