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Turkish Troops Hunt Kurdish Rebels in Iraq

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

Turkish troops and tanks crossed into Northern Iraq today. The Turkish forces are pursuing separatist rebels from the Kurdistan Worker's Party, or PKK. The rebels have been operating out of camps in the mountains on the Iraqi side of the border.

As NPR's Ivan Watson reports from Istanbul, the Turkish ground operation is escalating tensions with the Iraqi Kurds who govern the region.

IVAN WATSON: Turkish television broadcast images of helicopters carrying Turkish soldiers over the snowy mountains that divide Turkey and Iraq.

(Soundbite of helicopter flying overhead)

WATSON: Turkish news channels also broadcast wall-to-wall footage of columns of Turkish military trucks headed towards the border, as well as video of these Turkish soldiers marching up steep hills through deep snow.

In a statement on its Web site, the Turkish military said its cross-border ground operation began at 7 p.m. on Thursday. The goal is to, quote, "neutralize members of the terrorist organization, the PKK, in Northern Iraq." Only then, the statement concluded, would the armed forces return to Turkish territory.

Today, a PKK spokesman reported fierce clashes between the guerillas and Turkish troops. It's not clear how many Turkish soldiers have crossed the border. Turkish media put the figure at around 10,000. But Iraqi and U.S. military officials in Baghdad said, a few hundred Turks had entered Iraqi territory.

Iraqi Kurdish officials said the incursions have taken place in remote mountain areas where there are almost no inhabitants. The Turks' ground operations began after hours of intense cross-border shelling and airstrikes.

Safin Dizai, an Iraqi Kurdish diplomat in Northern Iraq, criticized one bombing run by Turkish war planes which he says destroyed at least three Iraqi bridges.

Mr. SAFIN DIZAI (Senior Official, Iraqi Kurdistan Democratic Party): Targeting the infrastructure of Kurdistan region is something which we cannot accept. And we hope that this will be the end of that and there will be no further provocations.

WATSON: Dizai says tensions almost boiled over at at least one location yesterday when Iraqi Kurdish militiamen surrounded and stopped a column of Turkish soldiers who had moved out of a reconnaissance base that they've longed maintained inside Iraq.

Mr. DIZAI: Yesterday, about early evening, these tanks and troops who rapidly got out of the base with the aim of controlling certain positions and locations and setting up the roadblocks and the routes between some areas of settlement. This was not accepted, of course, by our administration. And the message was very clear that they should avoid in intervening in the region.

WATSON: Kurdish officials say the Turks finally returned to their base after a tense standoff that lasted several hours. The Iraqi Kurds are accusing the Turks of using their campaign against PKK rebels as a pretext for threatening Iraqi Kurdistan. While Turkey was quick to recognize Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia this week, it has long adamantly opposed any move towards independence by the Iraqi Kurds.

Today, a White House spokesman announced Turkey gave Washington advanced warning that this ground offensive would take place. But American officials are also publicly urging their NATO ally to bring this operation to a swift conclusion.

Ivan Watson, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ivan Watson
Ivan Watson is currently based in Istanbul, Turkey. Following the 9-11 terrorist attacks, he has served as one of NPR's foreign "firemen," shuttling to and from hotspots around the Middle East and Central Asia.