ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey’s measures against northern Iraq will not target civilians and instead focus on those who organized the referendum on Kurdish independence, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said on Friday.
The comments appeared to back-track from those of President Tayyip Erdogan, who warned this week that Iraqi Kurds would go hungry if Ankara halted the flow of trucks and oil across the border.
Iraqi Kurds overwhelmingly backed independence in the historic referendum on Monday, defying neighbors, including Turkey, who fear the vote could renew regional conflict.
“In no way we will make the civilian residents there pay the price of the referendum,” Yildirim said in a speech in the northwestern Turkish province of Canakkale.
“All the measures we will take will be against those who took the decision to hold the referendum.”
Ankara has vowed economic, security and political steps, but has so far specified little action. In the immediate aftermath of the vote, Erdogan said it could stop the flow of trade across the border, warning that Kurds would go hungry.
“(They) will be left in the lurch when we start imposing our sanctions,” he said in a speech on Tuesday.
“It will be over when we close the oil taps, all (their) revenues will vanish, and they will not be able to find food when our trucks stop going to northern Iraq.”
Hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil a day flow across Turkey along a pipeline from northern Iraq, connecting the region to global oil markets.
Iraq, including the Kurdish region, was Turkey’s third-largest export market in 2016, with exports totaling $8.6 billion. Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci said on Friday there were currently no obstacles for exports to Iraq.
Turkey has the region’s largest Kurdish population and is fighting a three-decade-old insurgency in its largely Kurdish southeast. It fears the referendum will inflame separatist tensions at home.
The Turkish military killed three Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants in a clash in northern Iraq near the border with Turkey on Thursday evening and one Turkish soldier was killed, security sources said.
They said four Turkish soldiers were wounded in the firefight in the Kanimasi area of Iraq’s Dohuk district, across the border from Turkey’s Cukurca district.
The clash occurred as Turkish and Iraqi troops held military exercises some 100 km (60 miles) to the west at the Habur border gate, part of coordinated steps by the two countries in response to the independence referendum.
Turkish soldiers have for years been deployed in various parts of northern Iraq, including at Kanimasi, to prevent PKK militants crossing the border into Turkey, security sources say.
Commanders of the PKK, which is designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and European Union, are based in the mountains of northern Iraq.
Turkish warplanes frequently carry out cross-border air strikes against PKK targets there but reports of clashes on land are rare.
More than 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict since the PKK launched its separatist insurgency in 1984.
Reporting by Ece Toksabay; Writing by Daren Butler and David Dolan; Editing by Dominic Evans and Andrew Roche