ARBIL, Iraq (Reuters) - Turkish troops crossed into northern Iraq overnight and carried out a small-scale operation against Kurdish separatists, the Turkish army said on Tuesday.
The raid was launched after a group of Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants was spotted near the border, and the troops “hit a heavy blow” at the PKK after advancing a few kilometers into Iraq, a statement on the army Web site said.
“Two PKK groups were spotted just across the border, it was determined that they were planning attacks and a battalion of soldiers intervened,” a Turkish military official said.
The government of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region said the Turkish troops withdrew after less than 24 hours.
Turkey, under public pressure to act after PKK attacks on its security forces from bases in northern Iraq, has sent 100,000 troops to the border and carried out a series of small bombing and ground raids recently, despite U.S. worries that this could destabilize northern Iraq.
Iraqi officials played down the incident, denying there had been clashes and saying the roughly 300 Turkish troops had entered an unpopulated area near the border.
“We believe any unilateral actions to destabilize the situation will harm Iraq’s interests and Turkish interests at the same time,” Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari told a news conference with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
“At the same time we fully understand the legitimate concern Turkey has over the PKK terrorist activities against them.”
Turkey says it has a right to use force against separatist rebels who shelter in northern Iraq, but the United States and the European Union fear this could destabilize the region.
“Our army is doing whatever is necessary. Our security forces will continue to do whatever is necessary,” Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan told a news conference.
The border tension has forced Washington to balance the interests of two close allies. Rice did not address the latest incursion directly, but said Washington supports Turkish concerns over the PKK while hoping to avoid destabilizing Iraq.
“The United States, Iraq and Turkey share a common interest in stopping the activities of the PKK, which threaten to undo the stability of the north,” she said. “No one should do anything that threatens to destabilize the north.”
In Washington, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the United States had “asked Turkey to keep the operations very targeted and limited in terms of their exercises”.
U.S. Ambassador in Ankara Ross Wilson said Washington would continue sharing intelligence with Turkey. “We intend to continue our intelligence sharing and other activities in support of Turkey’s efforts to combat PKK,” he told reporters.
Turkey’s centre-right government, under pressure to respond to the attacks, blames Iraq for failing to rein in the PKK, and the United States for not pressuring the Iraqi authorities.
It has massed 100,000 troops on the border, and over the past several months has shelled and bombed Iraqi villages and launched occasional cross-border ground raids.
Iraq’s Kurds expressed anger. The prime minister of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region said its president, Masoud Barzani, had cancelled a trip to meet Rice in Baghdad in protest against U.S. tolerance for the Turkish incursion.
“We condemn this incursion. Turkey wants to transfer the problem onto the territory of Iraqi Kurdistan,” said Fouad Hussein, head of Barzani’s office.
Additional reporting by Sherko Raouf in Sulaimaniya, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Peter Graff in Baghdad, Paul de Bendern and Daren Butler in Istanbul, Jeremy Pelofsky in Washington; writing by Peter Graff in Baghdad; Editing by Tim Pearce