Turkey Continues Buildup Along Iraqi Border
SIRNAK, Turkey – Turkey sent more troops to its border with Iraq, and its foreign minister flew to Baghdad Tuesday to pressure top Iraqi officials to crackdown on Kurdish rebels who ambushed and killed 12 Turkish soldiers two days before.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, meanwhile, was quoted Tuesday in the country's leading daily Hurriyet as saying that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had talked of a possible joint U.S.-Turkish operation against the rebels during a telephone call Sunday.
Turkey's Foreign Minister Ali Babacan — who was expected to meet in Baghdad with his Iraqi counterpart and also Iraq's president, both Kurds — had said Monday that Turkey will pursue diplomacy before sending in its military.
The military movements overnight came just two days after a rebel ambush near the Iraqi border left 12 Turkish soldiers dead and eight missing. Several helicopters ferried commando units and pro-government Kurdish village guards for five hours toward the border, reporters said. The governor's office said more combat-experienced units were being deployed.
The airlift of troops late Monday came several hours after dozens of Turkish military vehicles loaded with soldiers and heavy weapons rumbled toward the Iraqi border. Turkish F-16 warplanes were also ready to take off from several bases in southeastern Turkey, according to local reports.
The military launched a major operation in retaliation to Sunday's rebel attack that killed 12 soldiers and wounded 16 others. Since the rebel attack, Turkish troops, backed by Cobra helicopter gunships, have killed 34 guerrillas, the military said.
Eight soldiers were reported missing by the military Monday and the rebel group claimed they have captured the soldiers and released their names. Turkish officials, however, said the search was continuing for soldiers from Sunday's attack and would not comment on the rebels' claims.
If confirmed, the seizure would be the largest since 1995, when guerrillas grabbed eight soldiers and took them to northern Iraq before releasing them two years later.
The rebel group Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, on Monday called on Turkey not to attack Iraq, claiming that a unilateral rebel cease-fire declared in June was still in place although it did not halt fighting.
"We have not officially ended the cease-fire," the group said, according to the pro-Kurdish Firat News Agency. "We're stating clearly that if the Turkish state stops its attacks then increased tensions will be replaced with a clash-free environment."
However, the rebel group said it was determined to defend itself against Turkish attacks.
In Baghdad, Babacan on Tuesday rejected any cease-fire.
Cease-fires are "possible between states and regular forces," Babacan said. "The problem here is that we're dealing with a terrorist organization."
Turkey has rejected several past unilateral cease-fires declared by rebels, saying it would keep fighting until all rebels surrender or are killed. In the past, rebels have pressed ahead with attacks despite cease-fires on grounds that they were defending themselves.
Sunday's ambush outraged an already frustrated public. Demonstrations erupted across the country and opposition leaders called for an immediate strike against rebel bases in Iraq, despite appeals for restraint from Iraq, the U.S. and European leaders. Funerals were being held for the slain soldiers on Tuesday in several cities.
The United States is pressing hard to keep Turkey from invading northern Iraq and possibly further destabilizing Iraq and the region.
The U.S. designates the PKK as an international terrorist organization.
Rice and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband issued a joint statement Monday urging Iraq and Turkey to work together on the issue.
"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 with the U.S., Iraq and Turkey at a Nov. 2-3 meeting in Istanbul of officials from Iraq's neighboring countries.
The rebel attack occurred four days after the Turkish Parliament authorized the government to deploy troops across the border in Iraq, amid growing anger in Turkey at perceived U.S. and Iraqi failure to live up to pledges to crack down on the PKK.
Sunday's attack raised the death toll of soldiers in PKK attacks in the past two weeks to around 30.
Rebels periodically cross the border to stage attacks in their war for autonomy for Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast. More than 30,000 people have died in the conflict that began in 1984.