BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Turkey said on Wednesday it had “no timetable” to withdraw troops fighting Kurdish guerrillas in northern Iraq, resisting pressure from the United States and other allies to end the offensive quickly.
Thousands of Turkish troops crossed the border last Thursday to root out PKK fighters. The PKK has used remote mountainous northern Iraq as a base in their armed campaign for self-rule in the mainly Kurdish southeast of Turkey.
“Our objective is clear, our mission is clear and there is no timetable until ... those terrorist bases are eliminated,” Turkish envoy Ahmet Davutoglu told a news conference after talks in Baghdad with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari.
Davutoglu, chief foreign policy adviser to Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, was sent to Baghdad to explain Ankara’s position on the offensive. He also met top U.S. officials in Iraq, including military commander General David Petraeus.
Acting Iraqi Prime Minister Barham Saleh said a prolonged Turkish operation would lead to “dire” consequences for the region and repeated Baghdad’s demand that the incursion end.
“This would be highly destabilizing, it’s dangerous to the stability of Iraq and the region as a whole,” Saleh, a Kurd, told Reuters on the sidelines of an economic conference.
Turkey’s military General Staff said another 77 Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) rebels had been killed in heavy fighting since Tuesday night, taking the death toll among the rebels to 230 since Turkey’s offensive began.
Military sources in southeast Turkey said several hundred Turkish soldiers were ferried across the border by helicopter into northern Iraq early on Wednesday evening.
They said there were also reports of heavy clashes in the area near PKK camps in Zap and Haftanin early in the evening, with the guerrillas putting up stiff resistance.
The United States and the European Union have expressed concern. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who arrived in Turkey to meet Turkish officials on Thursday, said Turkey must limit its operations to days rather than months.
“It’s very important that the Turks make this operation as short as possible and then leave, and to be mindful of Iraqi sovereignty,” Gates told reporters in New Delhi before leaving for the previously scheduled trip to Ankara.
“I measure quick in terms of days, a week or two, something like that. Not months.”
Turkish state-run Anatolian news agency earlier reported troops, backed up by helicopter gunships, had been reinforced along the Iraqi border to stop PKK guerrillas fleeing into Turkey in the offensive, which has been slowed by heavy snow.
Turkish warplanes bombed PKK hideouts in the mountainous Siladze area of northern Iraq, the agency said.
The Turkish General Staff said in a statement that five more Turkish soldiers had been killed since late Tuesday, taking their losses to 24. PKK claims that more than 100 Turkish troops had been killed could not be verified.
Ankara says it is engaged in a legitimate fight against what it and Washington describe as a terrorist organization.
Davutoglu later told Reuters the Turkish government had approached Baghdad several times for help to combat the PKK. He said Iraq was not capable of dealing with the rebels, given its preoccupation with security threats elsewhere in the country.
He said Turkey was focused on destroying PKK camps, adding its troops would not stay a day longer than necessary.
“There are certain difficulties because of weather conditions but we want to finish this operation as early as possible,” Davutoglu said.
“It is limited in the sense of geographical scope and time.”
On Tuesday, Iraq condemned the incursion and called for the immediate withdrawal of Turkish troops.
Gates’ visit to Turkey was planned before the offensive began. U.S. defense officials considered cancelling the trip, but decided it was better to bring the Pentagon’s message directly to Ankara that Washington wanted the operation concluded quickly, one senior U.S. defense official said.
The United States is providing significant intelligence to Turkey. If Ankara does not heed Washington’s call to complete the operation quickly, Washington could curtail or cut off that intelligence flow.
Ankara blames the PKK for the deaths of nearly 40,000 people since it began its armed struggle for self-rule in mainly Kurdish southeast Turkey in 1984.
Turkey says an estimated 3,000 PKK members have used northern Iraq as a base to stage cross-border attacks against Turkish military and civilians.
(Additional reporting by Mohammed Abbas in Baghdad and Kristin
Roberts in New Delhi; writing by Paul Tait and Dean Yates;
editing by Andrew Roche)