SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq (AFP) – Iraqi Kurdish rebels said Monday they were ready to lay down their arms if Turkey stopped targeting the rebels and abandoned plans for an incursion into Iraq, according to a rebel website.
“We are ready for a ceasefire if the Turkish army stops attacking our positions, drops plans for an incursion and resorts to peace,” said a statement on a website run by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Earlier, Iraq President Jalal Talabani, himself a Kurd, said the rebels were set to declare a unilateral ceasefire on Monday in the face of mounting Turkish threats to strike their bases in northern Iraq.
“The PKK has decided to declare a ceasefire from their side tonight,” Talabani told reporters, referring to the separatist PKK, regarded as a terrorist outfit by Turkey and the West.
The declaration by Talabani came after Turkey confirmed that eight soldiers were missing after deadly weekend clashes with the PKK near the Iraqi border, ramping up public pressure on the government to take action.
As tensions rose, Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan said Ankara would exhaust diplomatic efforts before resorting to military action, while key ally the United States urged patience.
“We will continue to exert these diplomatic and political efforts with good intention to resolve this crisis caused by a terrorist organisation,” Babacan told reporters after talks in Kuwait.
“But in the end, if we don’t reach a result, there are other means that we may be forced to use.”
Last week, Turkey’s parliament authorised the government to send troops across the Iraqi border at any time it sees fit, amid Turkish anger over a perceived US and Iraqi failure to crack down on the PKK bases.
Ankara says some 3,500 PKK rebels are based in northern Iraq, obtaining weapons and enjoying the support of Iraqi Kurdish leaders, a charge the Iraqi Kurdish administration strongly denies.
The Turkish army general staff said on Monday that eight soldiers were missing following clashes after a PKK ambush in southern Turkey at the weekend that killed 12 military personnel and 32 separatists.
“Despite all searches, contact has not been established with eight staff with whom contact was lost,” it said in a statement.
The ambush triggered street protests in Turkey, as well as media and opposition calls for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to order an immediate military incursion against PKK rebels hiding out in the mountains across the Iraqi border.
The United States has urged Erdogan to hold off on military action, but the prospect of Turkish soldiers being held captive is sure to turn up the heat on the government.
Washington strongly opposes any unilateral Turkish military action, fearing it would further destabilise the situation in Iraq.
On Sunday, Erdogan said he spoke to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who appealed for patience, asking for a “a few days”.
In Iraq, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said he was expecting Babacan in Baghdad for crisis talks on Tuesday, according to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s top aide Sami al-Askari.
However, the visit was not immediately confirmed by Ankara.
At a crisis meeting in parliament, Iraq refused to send troops in pursuit of the rebels but vowed to cut supplies.
Defence Minister Abdel Qader al-Obeidi told lawmakers that Iraq had “no intention” of redeploying badly-needed troops from the centre and south of the war-torn country for such a mission, according to Askari.
He appeared to put the onus on the American military to take action by saying that security in Iraq was the responsibility of US-led forces who have been in the country since the March 2003 invasion.
The PKK has been fighting for self-rule in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast since 1984 and more than 37,000 people have been killed since then.
Turks took to the streets for the second day running on Monday, with some 3,000 flag-waving demonstrators in Istanbul shouting anti-PKK slogans and criticising Erdogan for hesitating over a military strike.
After emergency talks Sunday night, a statement by top civilian and military leaders said Turkey was determined to destroy the PKK’s safe haven in northern Iraq “whatever the price may be.”
The Turkish government has now outlined “new steps and measures” against the PKK, Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek said after a cabinet meeting on Monday, but did not elaborate.
He warned that “Turkey’s strength should not be tested” and that parliament’s authorisation for military action “is not kept in the fridge.”
Erdogan said late Sunday that Ankara “will not hesitate to act under the right military conditions,” but his defence minister Vecdi Gonul said after talks with his US counterpart Robert Gates in Kiev that there were no immediate plans to cross the border.
Talabani had said on Sunday that delivering PKK leaders to Turkey is an unrealistic proposition given that the rebels are holed up in remote mountainous areas.
And Massud Barzani, the head of the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, has warned that his forces would repel any Turkish incursion.
Both leaders were pilloried in the Turkish press on Monday.
“They are no different from Apo,” headlined the popular daily Vatan, using the nickname of jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.
“Enough is enough,” the daily Cumhuriyet trumpeted, while Hurriyet wrote: “An operation is now inevitable.”