Turks ignore EU and harry Kurds

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The Independent Online

Europe Editor

The Turkish armed forces bombed and shelled Kurdish targets in northern Iraq for a fourth successive day yesterday, despite increasing criticism from Ankara's European allies.

Three European Union foreign ministers, Alain Jupp of France, Klaus Kinkel of Germany and Javier Solana of Spain, went to Ankara to warn the Prime Minister, Tansu Ciller, that an EU-Turkish customs- union agreement could be in jeopardy. "The Turkish armed forces must withdraw from northern Iraq. If it stays in the region for a long time, the approval of the European Parliament for the customs union will become more difficult," Mr Kinkel said.

Britain joined the chorus of concern over the Turkish incursion, saying it must not damage United Nations relief operations for Kurdish civilians in northern Iraq. "We have already emphasised to the Turks that they should be scrupulous in ensuring that no harm comes to non-combatants and there should be no interruption to normal relief efforts," a Foreign Office spokesman said.

Greece also weighed in with a demand that France, as EU president, should organise "immediate intervention" to end the crisis. It was unclear what the Greeks specifically had in mind.

Such warnings appear to be making little impression on Mrs Ciller or military commanders, who say the offensive will continue until the bases have been wiped out.

Turkish military officials said yesterday that troops were preparing to attack an area north of the town of Zakho where the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) is alleged to operate bases.

The United States has refrained from openly criticising the operation, saying it understands Ankara's desire to stop terrorism against its citizens. Diplomats said the US was hoping that the Turkish army would pull out of northern Iraq after a few weeks and that civilian casualties would be minimal.

Turkey's Defence Minister, Mehmet Golhan, said on Tuesday that the PKK had between 2,400 and 2,800 fighters in 12 camps in northern Iraq. But Western military specialists said the Turkish army had signalled its intention of crossing the border weeks in advance and many PKK guerrillas had probably left their bases before the assault began on Monday.

About 35,000 Turkish troops have pushed into northern Iraq and planes have flown regular bombing missions from three bases in eastern Turkey. Officials have justified the offensive partly on the grounds that Turkey has a "right of hot pursuit" in northern Iraq but Mr Jupp pointed out that the scale of the incursion went far beyond mere pursuit of Kurdish rebels crossing the border.

The Kurdish rebellion in south-eastern Turkey has lasted for more than 10 years and resulted in about 15,000 deaths.

The PKK showed on Wednesday that its units are still active inside Turkey by ambushing a military convoy in the province of Tunceli and killing three soldiers.