Turkey beefs up military presence on Iraqi border

17.jpgTurkey sent more tanks and troops to its border with Iraq on Wednesday (May 30th), fuelling speculation about an imminent military offensive against Kurdish rebels based in the neighbouring country’s north.

According to Reuters, a group of 20 tanks loaded on trucks left the army barracks in Mardin near Syria and headed east towards the border. Large contingents of soldiers, tanks, guns and armoured personnel carriers are said to be already deployed in the region.

Wednesday’s move came a day after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan urged the United States and Iraq to destroy PKK rebel bases in northern Iraq, refusing to rule out possible unilateral action by his country.

“We expect the United States and Iraq to destroy, scatter bases of terrorists there,” the Turkish leader said in remarks on private NTV television late Tuesday. “Our expectations have been relayed to the opposite side. We have to achieve results. It would not be right to spell out a deadline.”

The PKK has been fighting for self-rule in Turkey’s Kurdish-dominated southeast since 1984, leading a campaign of bombings, kidnappings and armed attacks that have left more than 30,000 people dead. The group is outlawed in Turkey, and is listed as a terrorist organisation by both the EU and the United States.

Ankara authorities believe up to 2,300 PKK militants operate inside Turkey, while about 3,800 have found shelter in northern Iraq. Public pressure has been increasing on the government since a suicide bombing on May 22nd that killed six people and injured more than 120. Six Turkish soldiers died the following day when their vehicle hit a landmine in a southeastern area where PKK guerrillas are active. Another soldier was killed by a landmine Wednesday in the province of Hakkari, near the Iraqi border.

A total of 13 Kurdish rebels have been killed in clashes with the Turkish forces since Monday.

“The PKK must be eliminated as a problem between Iraq and Turkey,” the Turkish special envoy to Iraq, Oguz Celikkol, was quoted as saying on CNN-Turk television on Wednesday. After a visit to Iraq this week, he voiced hope that the Kurdish issue will be resolved before Turkey decides to take unilateral action.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, called on Iraq to move against the PKK rebels on its territory.

“What we want from the Iraqi government is to take the necessary steps to stop the terrorists’ activities by any means,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Levent Bilman told reporters.

Asked whether Ankara had notified Baghdad about a possible Turkish cross-border attack, he said “We do not have to inform anybody about the possibility of such an intervention.”

Concerned about the impact on regional stability, the United States has urged Ankara against taking unilateral military action. The best way for dealing with the problem without jeopardising peace in the border region is through US, Turkish and Iraqi co-operation, officials in Washington have said.

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