Kurdish rebels ambush Turkish unit

A Turkish army tank heads toward Sirnak at the Turkey-Iraq border in this Oct. 9 file photo. Laura Prusik


A Turkish army tank heads toward Sirnak at the Turkey-Iraq border in this Oct. 9 file photo. Laura Prusik

By The Associated Press

SIRNAK, Turkey – Kurdish rebels ambushed a Turkish military convoy on Sunday less than three miles from the Iraqi border, killing 12 soldiers in the face of growing threats by Turkey to cross the rugged frontier and root out the guerrillas.

Turkey shelled the border region in response to the attack, and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani – himself a Kurd – ordered the rebels to lay down their arms or leave Iraq. Turkey dismissed his call, saying the time had come for action.

Despite the harsher rhetoric, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Sunday it appears Turkey’s military is not on the verge of invading Iraq’s most stable region in pursuit of the rebels – an incursion strongly opposed by the United States and Iraq.

Gates told reporters that in a meeting with Turkish Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul, he advised against a major cross-border incursion.

“I’m heartened that he seems to be implying a reluctance on their part to act unilaterally, and I think that’s a good thing,” Gates said. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that Turkey expected “speedy steps from U.S.” in cracking down on Kurdish rebels, and that Rice expressed sympathy and asked “for a few days” from him.

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Turkey’s Parliament last week authorized the government to deploy troops across the border, and the military confirmed that soldiers were chasing the rebels and pounding 63 suspected positions with artillery. Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek would not say however, whether some of those positions were on Iraqi soil.

“Whatever is necessary in this struggle is being done and will be done,” Cicek said.

The troops, backed by helicopter gunships, killed 32 rebels on Sunday, Cicek said.

The rebel group, Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK, claimed later that its guerrillas had also captured a “number” of Turkish soldiers. Eight soldiers were missing according, to private NTV television.

Cicek refused comment on the report, saying “the clashes are still under way.”

“Every kind of attack will be avenged many times over,” Cicek said.

The soldiers died when an estimated 200 guerrillas – the largest single group that attacked a Turkish unit in years – reportedly attacked an infantry company near the village of Daglica, less than three miles from the border.

The attack occurred just after midnight during a military offensive against rebels in Hakkari province, where the borders of Turkey, Iraq and Iran meet. Hakkari is east of Sirnak province, another area of conflict between the PKK and the Turkish military.

According to CNN-Turk, the rebels blew up a bridge as a 12-vehicle military convoy was crossing. In a separate attack on Sunday, 17 people were injured when a bomb exploded as a minibus – part of a wedding convoy – passed nearby, the local governor’s office said.

Iraq reported Turkish shelling toward Kurdish villages in the border area in northern Iraq but no casualties were reported in the artillery bombardment.

“Our anger, our hatred is great,” Erdogan said.

Sunday’s attack raised the death toll of soldiers in PKK attacks in the past two weeks to around 30.

“A cross-border offensive must certainly be carried out and their blood should not be left on the ground,” said Devlet Bahceli, leader of the Nationalist Action Party.

Previous offensives by Turkey in Iraq have blunted rebel strength but failed to eradicate the group.

The remarks by Talabani, the Iraqi president, were the strongest indication to date of his frustration with the rebels and his wish to distance himself, as well as Iraq’s Kurds, from them.

“If they insist on the continuation of fighting, they should leave Kurdistan, Iraq and not create problems here. And they should return to their countries and do there whatever they want,” Talabani said.

Later Sunday, Talabani told Turkey’s private Kanal D television that the PKK could announce a cease-fire on Monday. Turkey has rejected several unilateral rebel cease-fires in the past.

The Turkish government said it was time for action against the PKK.

“Statements do not satisfy us. There has been nothing left to say; we are expecting concrete steps from them,” Cicek said.

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ali Babacan, meanwhile, arrived unexpectedly in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia – his third visit to an Arab country since parliament passed the motion – in an apparent effort to muster Arab support for any Turkish offensive.

The attacks came as Turks on Sunday voted in favor of electing future presidents by popular rather than parliamentary vote in a referendum. Turkey’s leaders cut short trips to their hometowns where they cast their votes to return to the capital, Ankara.

Abdul-Rahman al-Chadrchi, a PKK spokesman in northern Iraq, denied there were any rebel casualties but said the rebels “killed and injured a number of Turkish soldiers and captured another number.”

Journalists heading to the area were turned away at a military checkpoint. Much of the rural area along the border has already been declared off-limits by the Turkish military.

About 15 Turkish shells hit Iraqi territory starting at about 7 a.m. Sunday, said Col. Hussein Rashid of the Iraqi border guard forces. The bombardment was concentrated in the Mateen mountain range in the Amadiyah area, 20 miles from the border.

Rashid said the villages were deserted because of the border tension.

The Iraqi region of Amadiyah is roughly opposite the Turkish town of Cukurca, in Hakkari province. Rebels are active near Cukurca, about 30 miles from the location where the soldiers died Sunday.

The U.S. lists the PKK as a terrorist organization and has condemned its attacks in Turkey. However, Washington has called on the Turkish government to work with the Iraqis.

“These attacks are unacceptable and must stop now,” said Gordon Johndroe, President Bush’s national security spokesman. “Attacks from Iraqi territory need to be dealt with swiftly by the Iraqi government and Kurdish regional authorities.”

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.

Associated Press Writers Suzan Fraser and Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara contributed to this report