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Baghdad urges talks as Turkey, PKK clash in N.Iraq

Turkish troops engaged Kurdish PKK rebels in close combat on Sunday that left scores dead in a major ground offensive into northern Iraq.

A Turkish army commando patrols a road surrounded by rugged mountains between the south-eastern Turkish towns of Sirnak and Hakkari bordering Iraq February 24, 2008. (REUTERS/Fatih Saribas)

Iraq's government said NATO member Turkey should withdraw its troops as soon as possible and urged Ankara to sit down with Baghdad for talks to resolve the crisis over the PKK.

The rebels said on Sunday they had shot down a Turkish Cobra attack helicopter. Baghdad and Washington fear the offensive could further destabilise Iraq.

Ankara launched the cross-border attack on Thursday after months of aerial bombardment of suspected PKK targets in the remote, mountainous region. It accuses rebels of using northern Iraq as a base to stage deadly attacks inside Turkey.

Turkey's General Staff said 33 PKK rebels, including a leader, and eight soldiers died in heavy, close combat in poor weather conditions on Sunday. It said at least 112 rebels and 15 soldiers have died since the operation began.

"The hot pursuit continues in three different regions (of northern Iraq) and our teams will carry out the operation with the same decisiveness and heroism," the General Staff said in a statement.

The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been battling for decades to create a Kurdish homeland in southeast Turkey, disputed the figures. It said 47 Turkish troops and two rebels had been killed since Thursday.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan sought to reassure the international community that Turkey's cross-border operation -- possibly its largest in a decade -- was focused on the PKK and would be limited in duration.

"Our Iraqi brothers should know that this operation is only to clean the terrorist camps and terrorists," Erdogan said.

But Iraq's government said it viewed the military action as "a threat to the stability of the region and a violation of Iraq's sovereignty and calls on Turkey to pull its troops from Iraq as soon as possible".

"The Iraqi government calls on Turkey to enter into bilateral dialogue with the Iraqi government and considers the threat of the PKK as a threat to Turkey and to the border areas," it said in a statement.

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told Reuters Erdogan would send a special envoy to Baghdad on Wednesday to discuss security issues.


The PKK said it downed a Cobra attack helicopter on Saturday evening in the Chamsku area. The military said a helicopter had been rendered ineffective but said the cause was unknown.

Turkish special forces were parachuted into northern Iraq on Sunday as F-16 warplane, Cobra helicopter and artillery fire pounded suspected PKK positions, Turkish media reported.

"The bombings are continuing by land and by air, the clashes are becoming heavier," a Turkish military source told Reuters on Sunday. Twenty five more tanks had been sent to the region.

A senior military source told Reuters two brigades made up of 8,000 troops are taking part in the offensive. Turkish media have put the troop numbers at 10,000 but a senior officer with U.S.-led coalition forces in Baghdad said they were under 1,000.

Washington is sharing intelligence with NATO ally Turkey on PKK movements in Iraq but has urged Ankara to limit the campaign to precise rebel targets and to bring it to a swift conclusion.

The United States and the European Union fear a prolonged military campaign inside Iraq would raise the risk of serious clashes between Turkish and Iraqi Kurdish forces and also undermine the fragile U.S.-backed government in Baghdad.

The autonomous Iraqi Kurdish administration of northern Iraq has vowed a tough response if civilians come under attack.

"The Kurdish Peshmerga (security) forces are on a state of alert and will defend themselves if the Turkish forces launch an incursion into areas under the control of the Kurdistan regional government," Peshmerga spokesman Jabbar Yawar told Reuters.

An official in Iraq's Northern Oil Company said the fighting would not hit Iraqi oil exports to the Turkish port of Ceyhan because the pipeline did not pass through the conflict area.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates -- who will visit Ankara later this week -- said on Sunday Turkey's campaign would not solve its problems with the rebels. Turkey should improve communication with Baghdad about the operation and other efforts against the PKK, he said.

The pro-PKK Firat news agency, which is based in Europe, quoted a top PKK commander in Iraq as urging Kurds in Turkish cities to join the fight against the Turkish state.

Ankara blames the PKK for the deaths of nearly 40,000 people since the group launched its armed struggle in 1984 for an ethnic homeland in southeast Turkey. Turkish military operations in northern Iraq in the 1990s failed to wipe out the guerrillas.

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