Turkey’s prime minister says ‘escalation inevitable’ in conflict with Kurdish rebels

ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey’s prime minister said Tuesday increased military action against separatist Kurdish rebels was “unavoidable” and pressed the United States for a crackdown on guerrilla bases in northern Iraq.

Turkish helicopters pounded rebel positions near the border with rockets for a second day and Turkey brought in troops by the truckload in an operation against mountainside emplacements.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told members of his party in parliament “it is now unavoidable that Turkey will have to go through a more intensive military process.”

But he also suggested he was not seeking an immediate cross-border offensive against the rebels of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, holed up in bases in northern Iraq. “The responsibility of leadership does not allow for narrow mindedness, haste or heroism,” he said.

“We must remember that Turkey is part of this world and diplomacy has certain requirements,” Erdogan added, suggesting the world expected Turkey to exhaust all nonmilitary options.

Erdogan flies to Washington on Nov. 5 for talks with President Bush that could be key to whether Turkey carries out its threat of a major military incursion. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is also expected in Turkey later this week.

“We will openly express that we expect urgent steps from the United States, which is our strategic partner and ally and has a special responsibility regarding Iraq,” Erdogan said.

The United States, Iraq and other countries have been calling on Turkey to refrain from a cross-border campaign, which could throw one of the few stable areas in Iraq into chaos. A Turkish incursion would also put the United States in an awkward position with key allies: NATO-member Turkey, the Baghdad government and the self-governing Iraqi Kurds in the north.

White House press secretary Dana Perino said Bush’s discussions with Erdogan would include “the fight against terrorism — in particular our joint efforts to counter the PKK.”

Turkish Cobra attack helicopters blasted suspected PKK targets in the Mount Cudi area, near the southeastern border with Iraq for a second day, trying to hunt down some 100 rebels believed to be hiding in mountainside caves, the private Dogan news agency reported.

The fighting has claimed the lives of three Turkish soldiers and six guerrillas, local news reports said.

Transport helicopters flew in commando units to block possible rebel escape routes on Cudi, Dogan reported.

An AP Television News cameraman said attack helicopters escorted four Black Hawk helicopters on Cudi, as they airlifted soldiers to the mountain and picked others up. Smoke could be seen rising from areas that had been hit in the attacks.

Dogan reported a 100-vehicle military convoy traveling from Cizre toward the border.

A Kurdish political party warned that the fighting threatened to increase animosity between the Turkish and Kurdish populations in Turkey.

Turkey is “moving toward a dangerous war in our region which will seriously damage historical relations between Turks and Kurds,” Nurettin Demirtas, a senior party official, told reporters.

Erdogan’s Cabinet scheduled a meeting for Wednesday to discuss possible economic measures against groups supporting the Kurdish rebels.

Deputy Prime Minister Hayati Yazici said Turkey was considering a series of sanctions against the self-governing Kurdish administration in Iraq’s north.

Yazici would not give any details, but the Iraqi region is heavily reliant on Turkish electricity and food imports, as well as Turkish investment in construction. There has been talk of shutting down the Habur border crossing — the only vehicular route into Iraq from Turkey.

Jamal Abdullah, a spokesman for the Iraqi Kurd regional government, complained that economic sanctions “would represent a collective punishment against Kurdistan’s people.”

He warned that Turkey and the U.S. Army also would suffer if the border crossing was closed. About 70 percent of U.S. air cargo headed for Iraq goes through Turkey, as does about one-third of the fuel used by the U.S. military there.

In an interview printed Tuesday in Turkey’s Milliyet newspaper, Massoud Barzani, the leader of Iraq’s Kurdish region, called for a peaceful solution to the crisis. He said that if the PKK did not give up violence, it would “confront not only Turkey but the whole Kurdish nation.”

But he questioned Turkey’s motives, suggesting it is interested in targeting not only the PKK but also Iraqi Kurds.

At least 46 people have been killed by the PKK in Turkey over the past month, according to government and media reports. Those included at least 30 Turkish soldiers killed in two ambushes that were the boldest attacks in years and increased domestic pressure on Erdogan to act.

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