ANKARA, Turkey, (AP) – Turkish warplanes and helicopter gunships reportedly attacked positions of Kurdish rebels along its rugged border with Iraq on Wednesday, as Turkey’s military stepped up its anti-rebel operations.
Several F-16 warplanes loaded with bombs took off from an air base in southeastern city of Diyarbakir, private Dogan news agency and local reporters said. The warplanes and helicopter gunships bombed mountain paths in Turkey used by rebels to infiltrate from neighboring Iraq, Anatolia reported.
On Sunday, Turkish helicopter gunships penetrated into Iraqi territory and troops have shelled suspected Kurdish rebel positions across the border in Iraq, a government official said Wednesday.
U.S.-made Cobra and Super Cobra attack helicopters chased Kurdish rebels three miles into Iraqi territory on Sunday but returned to their bases in Turkey after a rebel ambush killed 12 soldiers near the border, the official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
He also said Turkish artillery units shelled rebel positions as recently as Tuesday night but did not say which areas were targeted.
Turkish civilian and military leaders, meanwhile, held a National Security Council meeting to discuss the scope and duration of a possible offensive into northern Iraq, although such a move appears unlikely to occur before early November.
Turkey, which has moved troops to the Iraq border, warned Iraq and Western allies on Tuesday that a large-scale incursion was imminent unless the U.S.-backed government in Baghdad takes action against the rebels. The Turkish government said there would be no cease-fire with the fighters, who want an independent region in Turkey’s heavily Kurdish southeast.
About 100 red beret-wearing members of the official defense forces of Iraq’s Kurdish region were headed Wednesday for a camp near the border city of Dahuk, 260 miles northwest of Baghdad.
One of them, who would only identify himself as Capt. Ziad, said his troops had been mobilized from Irbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq.
“We want to prevent the conflict in Turkey from coming across the border,” he said.
Turkey’s military and civilian leaders face growing demands at home to stage the offensive in northern Iraq, where the rebels of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party — known as the PKK — rest, train and get supplies in relative safety before returning to Turkey to conduct attacks.
A high-level delegation from Iraq was expected to visit Ankara on Thursday.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan, returning late Tuesday from Baghdad, said, “We said that we are expecting them to come with concrete proposals and otherwise the visit will have no meaning.”
Turkey has long pressed Iraq to capture and extradite rebel leaders and a senior Turkish government official said Iraqi President Jalal Talabani had told Babacan that Iraq “does not exclude extradition” of rebels.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki also has ordered the closure of all offices belonging to the PKK in Iraq and said they would not be allowed to operate in Iraqi territory. And the United States on Tuesday issued its most direct demand yet for anti-rebel measures from the government of Iraqi’s effectively autonomous Kurdish region.
“We need more than words,” Babacan said. “We said that preventing the PKK from using the Iraqi soil, an end to logistical support and all PKK activities inside Iraq and closing of its camps are needed. We also said its leaders need to be arrested and extradited to Turkey.”
Iraq’s parliament speaker on Wednesday said his country cannot control the activities of Kurdish rebels but pledged to end any logistic support to the guerrilla group and seek a peaceful solution for the current standoff with Turkey.
“When the Iraqi government becomes capable of controlling Baghdad’s security, then the others can ask us to control the borders,” Iraqi Parliament Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani told reporters in Damascus after talks with his Syrian counterpart, Mahmoud al-Abrash.
However, he said, “this doesn’t absolve us from … a national duty not to serve as a headquarters or to support, in any form, any organization that might harm any neighboring country.”
Adding to the tension is the alleged capture of eight Turkish soldiers who have been missing since Sunday’s ambush.
Several newspapers and a pro-Kurdish station based in Denmark showed pictures and footage of eight missing soldiers — allegedly hostages in the hands of separatist rebels.
Turkey seems willing to refrain from a major cross-border action until at least early next month, when it is scheduled to host foreign ministers for a meeting about Iraq. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has proposed a meeting among the United States, Iraq and Turkey during the Nov. 2-3 conference in Istanbul.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expected to go to Washington almost immediately afterward to meet with President Bush. The Turkish leader is likely to reiterate demands that the U.S.-backed government in Iraq take steps to close off supply lines to the PKK and take other measures to reduce the group’s effectiveness, possibly including military action.
On Wednesday, several F-16 warplanes, loaded with bombs as usual, took off from an air base in southeastern city of Diyarbakir. But it was not clear whether they were on a bombing mission or just a reconnaissance flight. Turkish warplanes in the southeast almost always fly fully equipped with bombs.