ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey is “in the process of implementing” a cross-border operation against Kurdish guerrillas who use northern Iraq as a base to launch attacks, a senior Turkish general said on Thursday.
But there were no immediate signs of increased military activity along Turkey’s mountainous border with Iraq on Thursday evening, Reuters reporters in the region said, suggesting any offensive was only in the preparatory stages.
“We are in the process of implementing the cross-border operation,” General Ilker Basbug, head of the land forces and the second most powerful man in the armed forces, told reporters at a diplomatic reception in the Turkish capital.
Basbug did not spell out exactly what he meant.
Turkey’s parliament approved last month a government request to be able to launch cross-border operations into northern Iraq.
“When or how the motion (on a cross-border operation) will be implemented is another issue,” Basbug said, according to state-run Anatolian news agency.
Turkey has amassed as many as 100,000 troops, backed by warplanes, helicopters and tanks, for a possible cross-border incursion to root out the separatist rebels, blamed by Ankara for a series of attacks on its security personnel.
A senior Iraqi border guards officer said there were no signs Turkey had launched a cross-border operation into Iraq.
“There has been no Turkish incursion into Iraq, although there are many Turkish troops massed on the Turkish side of the border,” the officer, who declined to be identified, told Reuters.
Analysts say authorities have stepped up the rhetoric to put pressure U.S. and Iraqi authorities to move against the rebels.
One senior U.S. military official in Baghdad said he was not immediately aware of any Turkish action. Iraqi government officials could not be reached for comment.
On Tuesday security sources said Turkey had sent hundreds of special forces to the border to bolster its forces there.
Washington has urged Ankara to avoid a large-scale incursion, fearing it could destabilise the most peaceful part of Iraq and cause a bigger regional crisis.
Basbug’s comments followed a reaffirmation by the government this week that Turkey was ready to carry out an offensive against some 3,000 Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants based in the mountains of northern Iraq.
The PKK, considered a terrorist organisation by the United States, Turkey and the European Union, took up arms in 1984 with the aim of creating an ethnic homeland in mainly Kurdish southeast Turkey.
Nearly 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict.
NATO member Turkey has staged limited raids, predominantly air strikes, in the past month across the mountainous frontier against the separatist rebels.
“Turkish armed forces have been doing cross-border operations for years and they has been successful so far,” Basbug said, answering criticism about the effectiveness of previous offensives in northern Iraq.
He said that if such operations had not been carried out there would be 10,000 rebels rather than the 5,000 PKK fighters estimated to be in Iraq and Turkey.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said this week a military operation was still planned, despite logistical difficulties as winter closes in across the rugged region.
Last week, Erdogan urged U.S. President George W. Bush to crack down on the militants.
Iraq has pledged to hunt down and arrest PKK leaders. But Baghdad has little influence over the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in the north and the success of any measures against the PKK would depend on cooperation of Kurdish authorities.
Writing by Daren Butler and Paul de Bendern, editing by Richard Balmforth