Turkey battles Kurd rebels, mulls sanctions against Iraq

The Turkish army on Wednesday said it killed 15 Kurdish separatists near the Iraqi border, as ministers discussed possible economic sanctions against Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish government.

The latest fighting took place in the Cudi Mountains in Sirnak province, where Cobra helicopters and artillery have been pounding Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) rebels since Monday, an army statement said.

It confirmed that three soldiers were also killed in the clashes.

Turkey has massed thousands of troops along its border with Iraq as it threatens to conduct military strikes on PKK bases in northern Iraq, where it says the rebels obtain weapons for attacks on Turkish soil.

Ankara also accuses Massud Barzani, head of the autonomous Kurdish regional government, of supporting the PKK’s campaign, which it has waged since 1984, for self-rule in Turkey’s south-east.

“What they [Barzani and his followers] are doing there is quite simply harbouring a terrorist organisation,” Turkey Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said late on Tuesday during a reception for Turkey’s national day.

Reiterating that Ankara would talk only to Baghdad and not to the Barzani administration, Erdogan said his government was ready to use all available options to crush the PKK.

“If terrorist organisations encroach on Turkish territory, we will use all means available to us under international law,” he said.

The government met to evaluate possible economic sanctions against Iraqi Kurdistan, recommended last week by Turkey’s National Security Council, an influential consultative panel comprising top military and political leaders.

Possible sanctions include restricting trade with Iraq through the Habur border gate and cutting off electricity supplies to northern Iraq, press reports said.

Iraq is a lucrative market for Turkey and one of the few countries with which Ankara has a trade surplus.

Turkish exports to Iraq—including construction materials, food, household appliances and electricity—totalled $1,7-billion in the first eight months of this year and $2,5-billion for 2006, according to official figures.

Ankara has warned the United States that its failure to help end the PKK safe haven in northern Iraq would harm the relationship between the two Nato allies.

Scheduled to meet US President George Bush at the White House on November 5 and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Ankara on Friday, Erdogan has called for “concrete, urgent steps” against the PKK, which Washington considers a terrorist group.

“The problem of the PKK terrorist organisation is a sincerity test for everybody,” Erdogan said. “I will tell him [Bush] that this test carries great importance for the region and in determining the fate of our future relations.”

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is to travel to Istanbul this weekend to attend a ministerial meeting of Iraq’s neighbours, which Rice will also attend, but is likely to be overshadowed by the Turkish threats of military action.

Tensions at the frontier increased after October 21 when PKK rebels, who Turkey says infiltrated from northern Iraq, ambushed a military unit and killed 12 soldiers. Eight troops were captured.

The army has confirmed killing 80 rebels in crackdowns on the separatist group in Turkish territory, including those announced on Wednesday.

The crisis will enter a crucial diplomatic stage on Friday when Rice meets Turkish leaders in Ankara before Erdogan’s Washington visit.

She will hold talks with Erdogan, President Abdullah Gul and Foreign Minister Ali Babacan, a US embassy official said.
The US is strongly opposed to Turkish military action in northern Iraq as it battles an insurgency in the rest of the country.—AFP

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