ANKARA (AFP) – Turkish troops began withdrawing from northern Iraq on Friday, Turkish media said, amid conflicting reports on whether the army’s week-old offensive against Kurdish rebels in the region was over or not.
The NTV news channel said the cross-border incursion, which began late on February 21, had ended at midnight Thursday and troops had begun pulling out.
It broadcast footage showing a convoy of military vehicles carrying several dozen soldiers, entering Turkey from the border town of Cukurca.
The CNN Turk news channel, however, quoted an unnamed military source as saying that “only troops who have completed their mission are returning home” — suggesting a rotation rather than a withdrawal.
There was no official confirmation of either report.
Turkey has come under growing US and Iraqi pressure in recent days to withdraw from the region, amid concerns that its military operation might escalate into a broader conflict with Kurdish groups.
Turkish warplanes bombed positions of the rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq overnight, but the situation was quiet on the ground Friday morning, NTV said.
It quoted an Iraqi Kurdish official as saying that Turkish military activity had ceased in the region of Zap, a major PKK stronghold close to the border which has been the scene of intensive bombing raids and clashes on the ground.
A spokesman for the Iraqi Kurd security forces in northern Iraq told the semi-official Anatolia news agency they had no information that the offensive had ended.
“Some sources claimed that Turkish forces withdrew from Zap, but the same sources say fighting is continuing in Hakurk,” Major General Jabar Yawar told the agency.
Turkish troops rolled into northern Iraq just over a week ago to crack down on an estimated 4,000 PKK rebels who use the region as a springboard for cross-border attacks as part of their separatist campaign for self-rule in southeast Turkey.
US pressure on Turkey to wrap up the operation mounted Thursday as President George W. Bush said its forces should pull out “as quickly as possible” and Defence Secretary Robert Gates personally conveyed the US message to Turkish leaders in a series of talks in Ankara.
The incursion should be “limited and… temporary in nature,” Bush said in Washington.
The Turkish military should “move quickly, achieve their objective and then get out… as quickly as possible,” he added.
Washington is concerned that a prolonged incursion could spark a wider conflict between Turkish forces and the Iraqi Kurds, who run the autonomous administration of northern Iraq and are staunch US supporters.
Turkey has long accused Iraqi Kurds of providing the PKK with safe haven and weapons, and warned them this week not to shelter rebels fleeing the fighting.
The United States, which like Turkey lists the PKK as a terrorist group, has supported its NATO ally during the incursion with intelligence on PKK movements.
Ankara on Thursday had refused to commit itself to a pullout timetable.
“Turkey will remain in northern Iraq as long as necessary” and the troops will return home once PKK hideouts are destroyed, Turkish Defence Minister Vecdi Gonul said after talks with Gates.
Army chief Yasar Buyuklanit said: “A short time is a relative term. Sometimes this can mean one day and sometimes one year.”
The Turkish army says its has killed at least 237 militants and destroyed dozens of PKK hideouts, logistical bases and ammunition depots.
It has put its losses at 27 men.
The PKK claims to have killed around 100 soldiers, lost five and to have downed a Turkish attack helicopter.
The rebels took up arms for self-rule in Kurdish-majority southeast Turkey in 1984, sparking a conflict that has claimed more than 37,000 lives.