ANKARA (AFP) â€” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan Tuesday indicated he would resist calls from the influential military for an incursion into neighbouring northern Iraq to pursue Turkish Kurd rebels taking refuge there.Speaking ahead of a high-level security meeting attended by the army chief, Erdogan stressed military options should be “the last thing to do” and said he was planning talks with his Iraqi counterpart Nouri Maliki.
Ankara, he said, should concentrate on fighting rebels inside Turkey.
“There are 5,000 terrorists in the mountains in Turkey. Is the struggle against them over? Is this issue resolved so that we can come to dealing with the 500 terrorists in northern Iraq?” Erdogan was quoted as saying by the Anatolia news agency.
He added, however, that the figures he gave for the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants in Turkey and Iraq were not official, but just “examples”, Anatolia reported.
Military officials have earlier said that most PKK members â€” between 3,500 and 3,800 â€” are based in northern Iraq, with up to 2,000 others in Turkey.
They have also accused Iraqi Kurds, who run northern Iraq, of tolerating and even supporting the PKK, listed as a terrorist group by Ankara and much of the international community.
Chief of general staff, General Yasar Buyukanit, has several times said a cross-border operation was needed to destroy PKK bases in northern Iraq, where, officials say, the rebels also obtain weapons and explosives for attacks in Turkey.
“If such a thing is necessary, it is not announced by drum and horn,” Erdogan said. “Keeping this on the agenda can have a serious impact on our ties with Iraq.” He said he was planning to invite Maliki to Ankara in the coming days.
“What matters is to find a solution by negotiating at the table.
Those other things that are being debated are the last things to consider and do,” he insisted.
A Turkish incursion into northern Iraq is strongly opposed by both Baghdad and Washington, wary of fresh turmoil in the already conflict-ravaged country.
Visiting NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer also urged Turkey Tuesday for “a maximum of restraint” in dealing with the problem.
The apparent differences in Ankara follow tensions in April when the staunchly secularist army accused Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted government of tolerating rising Islamist activity in the country.
Later Tuesday, Erdogan convened senior officials to discuss measures against the PKK.
The meeting, which started at 5:00pm (1400 GMT), was attended by Buyukanit, other senior generals and the foreign and interior ministers.
On Monday, thousands chanted anti-government slogans at the funerals of three soldiers killed by the PKK, putting pressure on Ankara for tougher measures against the insurgents ahead of general elections on July 22.
“Those who call the government ‘killer’ will have to pay for it…. The interior ministry is following the issue,” Erdogan said.
The army has launched a large-scale crackdown against the PKK in Turkey’s east and southeast since April and amassed troops in regions bordering Iraq.
The PKK Tuesday offered a ceasefire if Ankara agreed to end the crackdown, the Firat news agency, a PKK mouthpiece, reported.
“If the government wants to reduce the tensions and hold the elections in a secure climate, the only way for it is to stop the military’s attacks,” it said.
Fifty-six members of the security forces and 74 PKK militants have been killed this year, according to army figures.
Seven civilians were killed in May when a suicide bomber, believed to be a Kurdish militant, blew himself up at a busy shopping centre in Ankara.
The PKK took up arms for Kurdish self-rule in the southeast in 1984. The conflict has claimed more than 37,000 lives.