Turkey sends more troops to Iraq border as Kurdish rebels say 8 missing soldiers held captive
Arab nations joined the U.S. and Europe in urging Turkey’s government not to attack suspected guerrilla bases in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, while Turkish citizens rallied across the country demanding action against the rebels.
Iraq’s president claimed the guerrillas would announce a cease-fire. But the rebels denied that, saying a cease-fire they declared in June was still in place.
With tensions worsening, the Turkish foreign minister said his government was pursuing a diplomatic solution to halt rebel operations out of havens in Iraq, but warned that it wanted to see results soon if an escalation in military action was to be avoided.
An AP Television News cameraman saw a convoy of 50 Turkish army vehicles, loaded with soldiers and weapons, including 155-mm howitzers, heading from the southeastern town of Sirnak toward Uludere, closer to the border.
Trucks towing artillery pieces covered with camouflage tarpaulins were trailed by khaki-colored trucks that appeared to be loaded with ammunition. Armored personnel carriers with helmeted Turkish soldiers manning heavy machine guns escorted the trucks.
It was unclear if the vehicles were joining troops fighting with rebels on Turkish soil or were preparing for a possible cross-border offensive, which was authorized by Turkey’s parliament last week.
At least five U.S.-made transport helicopters ferrying soldiers and Cobra helicopter gunships also were seen flying toward the frontier.
The Pentagon has said 60,000 Turkish soldiers have deployed along the border. The north is one of the few relatively calm Iraqi regions, and the U.S. fears an incursion by its ally Turkey could worsen the Iraq war.
After weeks of stepped-up clashes between Turkish troops and rebels, tensions racheted even higher after a guerrilla ambush Sunday killed 12 soldiers and left eight missing. The army said 34 rebels died in a counterattack.
The rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party said its fighters captured the missing soldiers – a claim that would make it the largest seizure since 1995, when guerrillas grabbed eight soldiers, took them to northern Iraq and held them for two years before letting them go.
„Right now, these soldiers are hostages in the hands of our forces,“ a senior PKK commander, Bahoz Erdal, was quoted as telling the pro-Kurdish Firat News Agency in Belgium. „Their health condition is good. One of them was slightly injured, but was being taken care of by our medics.“
The claim was sure to intensify the army’s search for the soldiers.
Protesters waving the red and white Turkish flag demonstrated in cities nationwide to demand a tough response to the weekend ambush.
„Martyrs never die! The nation will never be divided!“ demonstrators shouted in Ankara, the capital. „Martyr“ is a term used by Turks for soldiers killed in combat.
Others chanted „Down with the PKK and USA!“ Many Turks are angry at Washington over what they consider the failure of U.S. and Iraqi forces to honor pledges to crack down on the group, which is listed by the U.S. as a terrorist movement.
Iraqi Kurds allied with Turkish forces in the 1990s to fight the PKK, a rival in their northern enclave at a time when Saddam Hussein ruled the rest of Iraq. But Iraqi Kurds are now reluctant to attack their ethnic brethren from Turkey, fearing the Turks want to curb Kurdish aspirations for self-rule.
President Bush talked separately with both Turkish President Abdullah Gul and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Monday to express his „deep concern“ about attacks on Turkish soldiers, said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the White House National Security Council.
In his call to Gul, Bush reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to helping combat PKK guerrillas operating out of northern Iraq, while Bush and al-Maliki agreed that „Turkey should have no doubt about our mutual commitment to end all terrorist activity from Iraqi soil,“ Johndroe said.
Earlier, Turkey’s foreign minister said the government would pursue diplomacy before it sends troops across the rugged frontier.
„Our preference is diplomacy, but the military option is no doubt a method in the struggle against terrorism,“ Foreign Minister Ali Babacan said after touring the Middle East to explain Turkey’s position.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, said the PKK would make a cease-fire announcement Monday, but rebels later said they already had announced a unilateral cease-fire in June.
„We’re stating clearly that if the Turkish state stops its attacks, then increased tensions will be replaced with a combat-free environment,“ a rebel statement said.
Turkey has rejected truces declared by the PKK, demanding that the rebels surrender or be killed. The rebels have pressed ahead with attacks on the grounds they are defending themselves against the army.
In Washington, the State Department said the United States had opened a diplomatic campaign to persuade Turkey not to invade northern Iraq.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice by telephone Sunday night that Turkey expected „speedy steps from the U.S.“ in quelling the PKK. He said Rice asked „for a few days.“
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack did not dispute the account of the conversation but declined to comment on what Rice meant by asking for „a few days.“
Erdogan did not specify what he meant by „speedy steps,“ but he has often urged the United States and Iraq to crack down on the PKK. Turkish leaders say it is the responsibility of those countries to do whatever is necessary to destroy guerrilla bases in northern Iraq.
McCormack said Rice pressed Erdogan for restraint and also spoke to the leader of Iraq’s Kurdish region, Massoud Barzani, to ask for action from Iraq against the Kurdish militants.
Rice told Erdogan „we do not believe unilateral cross-border operations are the best way to address this issue,“ McCormack said.
She told Barzani that Iraqi authorities needed to take action against the PKK either on their own or with the Turks, McCormack said, a sentiment echoed Monday in a joint statement issued by Rice and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who was in Washington.
„We continue to believe that cooperation and coordination between Turkey and Iraq is the most effective means to eliminate the PKK threat,“ Rice and Miliband said, adding that they had proposed a three-way meeting among the United States, Iraq and Turkey at a Nov. 2-3 meeting in Istanbul of officials from Iraq’s neighboring countries.
Steven Cook, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, noted previous Turkish incursions into northern Iraq had not destroyed the PKK, which has waged an insurgency in Kurdish-dominated southeastern Turkey that has killed some 30,000 people since 1984.
„The PKK is trying to draw the Turks into Iraq to keep them bogged down there,“ Cook said, saying the rebels hoped prolonged military action in Iraq would destabilize Turkey.
Egypt and Jordan cautioned Turkey on Monday against launching an offensive into Iraq, a reflection of Arab countries’ fears of widening the Iraq conflict.
Arab nations traditionally oppose any foreign incursion into a fellow Arab state, and they fear a Turkish attack could fuel separatist sentiment among Iraqi Kurds and increase the danger of Iraq’s breakup. But they also have ties with predominantly Muslim Turkey and oppose Kurdish separatist movements.
„I hope that both sides, Turkey and Iraq, will sit together to find a solution to the Kurdish problem,“ Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said. In Jordan, government spokesman Nasser Judeh said: „We’re concerned about Iraq’s security, unity and integrity.“