US urges Turkey to keep operation short; Ankara declines to set a date

The U.S. increased the pressure on Ankara for a quick end to the operation against the PKK separatists. In Ankara the U.S. Defense Secretary said it should "be short" while in Washington President Bush said Turkish troops should withdraw "as soon as possible". But Turkish officials declined to give timetable for withdrawal, saying it will continue "as long as necessary". (UPDATED)

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U.S. President George W. Bush repeated on Thursday their calls to Turkey for a quick end to the northern Iraq incursion on the day the U.S. Defense Secretary visited Ankara to hold high-level of talks. Bush said Turkish troops should withdraw from Northern Iraq "as quickly as possible." "The Turks need to move, move quickly, achieve their objective and get out," he told a White House news conference.

However Turkey said its offensive against outlawed PKK separatists in northern Iraq will continue "as long as necessary," rejecting US pressure. Despite Turkish refusal to give a timetable for a pullout, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said after talks in Ankara he believed Turkish leaders got his message. Speaking after meeting with Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul in Ankara, Gates said the operation, launched on February 21, should be "as short and precisely targeted as possible".         

Gonul responded that "Turkey will remain in northern Iraq as long as necessary" and the troops will return home once PKK hideouts are destroyed. "There is no need for us to stay there after we finish (off) the terrorist infrastructure... We have no intention to interfere in (Iraqi) domestic politics, no intention to occupy any area," he told reporters.

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Gates, who also met with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul, had said Tuesday the offensive should last no longer than "a week or two" but Turkish army chief Yasar Buyukanit made it clear that Turkey would not be constrained by deadlines. "A short time is a relative term. Sometimes this can mean one day and sometimes one year," he said after talks with Gates, adding that the United States has been fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan "for years."

Thousands of Turkish troops, backed by warplanes and attack helicopters, crossed the border on Feb. 21 to root out PKK separatists and destroy their numerous bases. It is Turkey's first major ground offensive against the PKK in northern Iraq in a decade. According to the latest official statement on the operation, 230 PKK militants and 24 Turkish troops were killed since the operation launched. 

Turkish television said between 3,000 and 10,000 soldiers had entered Iraq, but several Iraqi officials and a military source with U.S.-led coalition forces in Baghdad said only a few hundred troops were involved. Turkish General Staff or the government hasn't officially specified the size of the operation, but they repeat it will continue "until the goals are reached". 

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Turkish warplanes meanwhile bombed separatist PKK positions in northern Iraq and intensive fighting was reported on the ground near a major rebel base, Iraqi security sources told AFP. Turkish fighter jets and artillery pounded several locations near a key PKK base in Zap, near the Turkish border, and intensive clashes erupted on the ground, according to both international and local news agencies. Turkish forces were also dropping leaflets over the snow-bound mountains calling on the militants to surrender.

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Senior military sources in southeast Turkey told Reuters several hundred Turkish soldiers were ferried across the border by helicopter into northern Iraq on Wednesday evening. A senior military source said around 10,000 troops were involved in the northern Iraqi operation, much centered around a key PKK bas in Zap valley. Units of several hundred special forces, backed by soldiers, were leading the charge against PKK camps across an isolated part of northern Iraq, which is not under the control of the semi-autonomous northern Iraqi Kurdish administration, Reuters reported.


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