By Evren Mesci
ANKARA (Reuters) – President Abdullah Gul warned Kurdish rebels on Thursday that Turkey’s patience was running out after Turkish forces said they had repelled a guerrilla attack near the Iraqi border.
Ankara has massed up to 100,000 troops along the mountainous border before a possible cross-border operation to crush about 3,000 rebels of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) who launch attacks into Turkey from northern Iraq.
Iraqi, Turkish and U.S. diplomats have stepped up efforts to avert a large-scale Turkish incursion but Gul said NATO-member Turkey would not tolerate any more PKK attacks from Iraq.
“We are totally determined to take all necessary steps to end this threat … Iraq should not be a source of threat for its neighbors,” Gul told an economic conference in Ankara.
The United States is keen to avert a large-scale Turkish offensive in northern Iraq, fearing it would destabilize not only the most peaceful part of that country but potentially also the region as a whole.
“(The United States) may not want us to carry out a cross-border operation. But it is we who will decide whether to do one or not,” Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan told reporters during a visit to Romania.
Public pressure on Turkish authorities to act has grown since rebels killed 12 soldiers last weekend. The PKK, branded a terrorist organization by the United States, Turkey and the European Union, has said it captured eight soldiers.
“We are doing all we can, (we are) working with the Iraqi and Turkish governments to make sure the hostages are freed,” Matthew Bryza, U.S. deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, said in a speech in Ankara.
Turkish security sources have confirmed a series of sorties by warplanes and ground troops since Sunday into Iraqi territory, although Ankara has said it still hopes diplomacy can stave off the need for a full-scale ground invasion.
Turkish tanks and artillery helped beat off an attack by up to 40 PKK rebels late on Wednesday on a military post in Hakkari province near the border, security officials told Reuters.
After fierce clashes, the guerrillas withdrew into northern Iraq, taking an unknown number of dead and wounded, the officials said. One Turkish soldier was wounded.
F-16 fighter jets took off early on Thursday from the airport in Diyarbakir, the largest city of Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast region. Their destination was not known.
An Iraqi Kurdish security official said a Turkish warplane bombed a Kurdish village on Wednesday but gave no details of damage.
An Iraqi team, led by Defense Minister General Abdel Qader Jassim and including members of northern Iraq’s Kurdish administration, arrived in Ankara for talks which Turkish officials described as a last chance for diplomacy.
The Baghdad government has promised to shut down PKK offices but Ankara knows the central authorities in Iraq hold little sway in the autonomous Kurdish north.
Turkish newspapers on Thursday accused Iraqi and Iraqi Kurdish leaders of dishonesty and unreliability, saying they promised much but delivered virtually nothing.
They were especially angry with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, whom senior Turkish officials quoted on Wednesday as saying Baghdad might hand over PKK rebels to Turkey. Talabani’s office later denied he said this.
The U.S. ambassador in Baghdad told reporters that Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq should “do everything possible to interdict resupply” and also try to detain rebels moving in or out of the mountainous border region.
“Folk heading up that way need to be stopped, folks coming down need to be picked up,” Ryan Crocker said in Baghdad. The United States has practically no troops in northern Iraq.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is due to visit Turkey on November 2 and 3 to try to ease tension between Turkey and Iraq.
Erdogan is expected to meet President George W. Bush in Washington on November 5.
A senior Turkish diplomat, who asked to remain anonymous, told Reuters Ankara was waiting for the United States to come up with a response to its request for action against the PKK.
“The real deadline is the Bush-Erdogan meeting. There will be no major military action before that,” the diplomat said.
Ankara blames the PKK for the deaths of more than 30,000 people since the group launched its armed campaign for an ethnic homeland in southeast Turkey in 1984.
(Additional reporting by Gareth Jones in Ankara, Thomas Grove in Uludere, Seyhmus Cakan in Diyarbakir and Ross Colvin in Baghdad)