ANKARA, Turkey – Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Thursday that U.S. objections would not stop Turkey from crossing into Iraq to eliminate Kurdish rebels. The Turkish military said it had killed more than 30 insurgents who were poised to launch an attack, near the Iraqi border.
President Abdullah Gul said Turkey is running out of patience with the Kurdish separatist attacks. A steady stream of U.S.-made Turkish fighter jets roared into the sky near the Iraqi border, apparently loaded with bombs.
The Turkish military said it had spotted a "group of terrorists" near a military outpost in the province of Semdinli close to the border with Iraq on Tuesday and fired on them with tanks, artillery and other heavy weaponry. It said the group had been preparing for an attack.
In a statement posted on its Web site, the military said the troops kept firing on the group as they escaped toward the Iraqi territory. The report increased the official number of rebels killed since Sunday to at least 64.
The rebels denied any casualties, calling the military statement a "lie," the pro-Kurdish Firat news agency said.
The Bush administration is urging Turkey not to launch an incursion that would destabilize Iraq's autonomous Kurdish north, Iraq's most stable region. But Erdogan said the U.S. desire to protect the north would not hinder Turkey's fight against the rebels from the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, who use mountain bases in Iraq to rest, train and get supplies in relative safety before returning to Turkey to carry out attacks against government forces in the heavily Kurdish southeast.
The Bush administration "might wish that we do not carry out a cross-border offensive, but we make the decision on what we have to do," Erdogan said during a visit to Romania. "We have taken necessary steps in this struggle so far, and now we are forced to take this step and we will take it."
He said that the U.S. should repay Turkish assistance for the invasion of Afghanistan with support for Turkey's struggle against the Kurdish rebels, who want autonomy in the southeast.
"Right now, as a strategic ally, the USA is in a position to support us. We have supported them in Afghanistan," he said.
An AP Television News cameraman saw two F-4 fighter jets flying low along the Iraqi border on an apparent reconnaissance mission, a day after warplanes reportedly pounded rebel positions along the border.
Fighter jets take off with their bomb-holding compartments' hatches closed when loaded. AP Television News cameramen said at least four Turkish F-16 warplanes left their air base in Diyarbakir on Thursday with closed hatches but returned with the hatches open. A batch of F-16s had taken off from the same base earlier in the day, as well.
More than 10 attack helicopters were seen flying in Hakkari province toward the Turkish-Iraqi border as government-paid village guards in camouflage, wielding AK-47s, patrolled roads leading to the border day and night.
The pro-Kurdish news agency Firat confirmed military operations near the border in Sirnak province have continued since Wednesday.
"We are totally determined to take all the necessary steps to end this threat," Gul said in Ankara before a visit by a delegation of high-level Iraqi officials. The officials arrived Thursday evening but did not talk to reporters.
Turkey is "expecting them to come with concrete proposals — otherwise, the visit will have no meaning," Foreign Minister Ali Babacan said.
The delegation is headed by Iraqi Defense Minister Abdul-Qader al-Obeidi and will include Minister of State for National Security Sherwan al-Waili, said Yassin Majid, an adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
"The political choice will be the first solution to solve the crisis. The Iraqi government insists on dialogue and cooperation to solve the crisis," Majid said.
Iraq has promised to shut down offices used by rebel bases. But Turkey wants Iraq and the U.S. to destroy the bases and extradite the rebel leadership to Turkey.
Turkey's top leadership has called for both an incursion and economic measures against northern Iraq if Turkey's demands are not met. The self-ruling Kurdish administration in Iraq's landlocked north relies heavily on Turkish investment and fuel imports.
Turkish troops have killed hundreds of Kurdish rebels since Jan. 1, the state-run Anatolia news agency said, citing military sources. It did not say how many Turkish soldiers have died, but about 30 troops have been killed this month alone.
On Sunday, a rebel ambush near the border killed 12 soldiers. Eight soldiers have been missing since then; the rebels say they are holding them hostage and have distributed photographs and video purportedly showing the captives.
U.S., Turkish and Iraqi officials are working to free the hostages, Matthew Bryza, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, said at a meeting in Ankara of officials from Black Sea nations.
Firat reported that the rebel group said hostages were in good condition but that negotiations were ruled out for now.
Bryza also said Washington has increased the level of cooperation in intelligence sharing with Turkey.
"We have improved and increased our intelligence cooperation and sharing with Turkey," Bryza said. "We know we have to achieve concrete results. We are appalled by the attack and the hostage-taking. It is not acceptable."
He called the PKK "a problem for all the Black Sea community."
Turkey still seems willing to refrain from a major cross-border action until at least early next month, when it is scheduled to host foreign ministers in Istanbul to discuss Iraq.
Erdogan is expected to go to Washington afterward to meet with President Bush.
European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana urged Turkey and Iraq to find an amicable solution.
"We let them try to work out a solution between the two," Solana told reporters, adding he was ready to "help where necessary," to find a way to persuade Turkey to stay out of Iraq, which the EU and others fear could further destabilize the region.