Turkish Troops, Tanks Invade Northern Iraq

Turkish troops entered northern Iraq to hunt Kurdish separatist rebels after fighter jets struck at their bases, the Turkish army said Friday.

Some 10,000 troops penetrated 10 kilometers (six miles) into the autonomous Kurdish northern Iraq, the NTV news channel said.

The operation started late Thursday when tanks were reported heading for the frontier and came as the region is in the thick of winter with sub-zero temperatures.

The army did not state the number of troops involved but said the incursion followed eight hours of air and artillery strikes on Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) camps across the border on Thursday.

"Following this successful offensive, a cross-border ground operation backed by the Air Force was launched at 7:00 pm (1700 GMT)," said an army statement posted on the general staff Internet site.

The army said troops "will return home as soon as possible after achieving their planned objective of incapacitating members of the terror organization and destroying their infrastructure."

The statement highlighted that Turkish armed forces "attach special importance to Iraq's territorial integrity and stability."

Turkey's parliament in October gave a one-year authorization for cross-border operations against the PKK and forces have been built up since then with regular air strikes into northern Iraq.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul informed Iraq's President Jalal Talabani about the offensive in a telephone call Thursday night and invited Talabani to Turkey, Gul's office said.

"During the call, our president conveyed information on the objective of the ground operation which began Thursday night," the statement said adding that Gul underlined Turkey's intention to boost bilateral ties with Iraq.

Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari denied a large-scale Turkish raid had been launched but said tension was high and rising in the border region.

The army statement said the incursion targets only the PKK, which Ankara accuses of using northern Iraq as a springboard for attacks on Turkish territory.

The army will "demonstrate the care required to avoid any adverse effects on civilians and local elements not hostile to the Turkish Forces," said the statement.

The US military in Iraq called the Turkish incursion "an operation of limited duration to specifically target PKK terrorists in that region."

Rear Admiral Gregory Smith said "Turkey has given its assurances it will do everything possible to avoid collateral damage to innocent civilians or Kurdish infrastructure."

"The United States continues to support Turkey's right to defend itself from the terrorist activities of the PKK," Smith said in a statement.

The United States "has encouraged Turkey to use all available means, to include diplomacy and close coordination with the government of Iraq, to ultimately resolve this issue."

Turkish warplanes, assisted by US intelligence, have conducted several air strikes on PKK targets in northern Iraq since December 16 in addition to a minor land operation to stop a group of militants from infiltrating Turkey.

The Turkish statement said: "It is believed that the operation will prevent the region from being used by the terrorists as a permanent safe haven and thus contribute to domestic peace and stability in Iraq."

The army will "demonstrate the care required to avoid any adverse effects on civilians and local elements not hostile to Turkish Forces," it said.

The PKK, listed as a terrorist group by Ankara and much of the international community has waged a violent 23-year campaign for self-rule in southeast Turkey. The conflict has claimed more than 37,000 lives.

Turkey says an estimated 4,000 PKK rebels enjoy refuge in northern Iraq and use the region as a springboard for attacks on Turkish territory.

In Baghdad, the foreign minister, a Kurd, denied there had been an incursion but said there had been intense Turkish air and artillery strikes and that forces loyal to northern Iraq's autonomous Kurdish government had been involved in a stand-off with Turkish forces.

Turkey has bases of its own in Iraq's northern mountains and on Thursday attempted to launch a land operation, Zebari said.

"They were prevented from doing this because this is not their mandate," he said, explaining that Turkish troops were allowed to operate inside Iraq only as observers.

"There weren't any clashes. It was resolved peacefully," he said.

The Turkish army and Iraqi forces both denied media reports Thursday that fighting had broken out between Turkish troops and Peshmarga forces in northern Iraq.

Turkish media reported Thursday that the army was moving reinforcements and equipment to the border in preparation for a large-scale incursion.

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