Turkey, Iran to collaborate against Kurdish rebels

Selcan Hacaoglu – Associated Press October 21, 2011

Turkey and Iran vowed Friday to collaborate in their fight against Kurdish rebels, as thousands of Turkish troops pressed ahead with an air and ground offensive against the militants in northern Iraq for a third day.

The foreign ministers of Iran and Turkey announced plans to cooperate against rebels of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, and its Iranian wing, the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan, or PJAK, during a joint news conference in Ankara. Both groups, labeled as terrorist organizations by the United States, have been fighting for Kurdish autonomy in their respective countries.

“Our joint determination to struggle against the PKK and the PJAK will continue in the strongest way,” Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said. “From now on, we will work together in a joint action plan until this terrorist threat is totally eliminated.”

Turkey launched a cross-border offensive against Kurdish rebel hideouts in Iraq on Wednesday after 24 soldiers were killed by the rebels near the border town of Cukurca. It was the deadliest one-day toll against the military since the mid-1990s.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi claimed that the deaths of Turkish soldiers might have been avoided if the United States had informed Turkey that the rebels were infiltrating into Turkey with heavy weaponry. The U.S. shares intelligence from surveillance drones with Turkey about movement of Kurdish rebels along the border.

Salehi said the PKK and PJAK were “common problems” for both countries.

“We need to cooperate more seriously against them,” Salehi said.

Turkey’s cooperation with Iran against the rebels comes despite rifts with Tehran over a Turkish decision to host a NATO early warning radar as part of a missile defense system aimed at countering ballistic missile threats. Turkey is a U.S. ally but also benefits from friendly relations with Tehran both in trade and in fighting against the rebels.

It was not immediately clear what measures the two countries are planning to take against the Kurdish rebels, who have their main base on Qandil Mountain that sits on the Iraqi-Iranian border deep inside Iraq. Iranian artillery units have in the past fired salvos at Qandil, as Turkish warplanes staged bombing raids against suspected rebel bases there.

The rebels, however, reportedly rush into deep caves when they hear the whistling shells or the roar of the jets. And a ground offensive against Qandil is deemed highly risky and difficult since the area is allegedly heavily mined.

Turkish warplanes on Friday flew several bombing sorties against Qandil as well as rebel camps along the Iraqi border in Zap and Hakurk regions, the state-run TRT television said.

About 10,000 Turkish troops were pursuing Kurdish rebels in southeastern Turkey and across the border in Iraq. The number of troops that crossed into Iraq was not clear.

“The air and ground offensives mostly concentrate within Turkey and in Cukurca area, while air and ground operations are underway in a few areas across the border in northern Iraq,” the military said in a statement Friday.

Turkey has launched more than two dozen air and ground incursions into northern Iraq over the 27 years of the insurgency, with mixed results. The rebels have returned to positions along the border soon after the troops have withdrawn. The current offensive was the largest attack on the insurgents in more than three years.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the current offensive sought “results.”

“I can say that one of the most comprehensive operations is being carried out,” Interior Minister Idris Naim Sahin told NTV television Friday.

The military said the current operation includes commandos, special forces and paramilitary special forces — elite forces trained in guerrilla warfare. They are being reinforced by F-16 and F-4 warplanes, Super Cobra helicopter gunships and surveillance drones.

The Sabah newspaper, without citing sources, said the troops had penetrated as deep as 15 miles (25 kilometers) into Iraq. The military would not share operational details.

Iraq on Thursday promised to stop the rebels from using Iraqi territory for future attacks against Turkey. It was not clear if Iraqi Kurdish forces will again assist Turkish troops against the Turkish Kurdish rebels as they did in the early 1990s.

The Kurdish rebel attack has fueled strong nationalist sentiment in Turkey. Tens of thousands of people, including high school students, took to the streets in protest Thursday, calling for tougher action against the rebels.

Turkey’s conflict with the Kurdish rebels has killed tens of thousands of people since the insurgents took up arms to fight for autonomy in the country’s Kurdish-dominated southeast in 1984.

Associated Press writer Suzan Fraser in Ankara contributed.

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