By SELCAN HACAOGLU - Associated Press
ANKARA, Turkey (AP) -- Turkey's prime minister on Sunday signaled a joint military offensive with Iran against their common enemy: Kurdish rebels based in northern Iraq.
Turkey and Iran were working together and "determined," Recep Tayyip Erdogan said.
"There is no question of any postponement," Erdogan said in a clear reference to a possible joint military operation against the main Kurdish rebel base on Qandil Mountain which sits on the Iraqi-Iranian border deep inside northern Iraq.
"I regret to say this but there will be a price for it," Erdogan said, apparently referring to possible military losses in a cross-border offensive against the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which has been waging a war for autonomy in Turkey's southeast. It was not immediately clear if the two countries are planning a highly risky and difficult ground offensive at Qandil, which has reportedly been turned into a mine field by the rebels to protect themselves.
The Party of Free Life of Kurdistan, or PEJAK, which is an offshoot of the PKK that the U.S. and the European Union have labeled a terrorist group, is also struggling for autonomy for Iran's Kurds because of alleged Tehran government discrimination. Kurds make up 14 percent of Iran's population.
Iranian artillery units often fire salvos at Qandil, and Turkish warplanes stage bombing raids against suspected rebel bases there, but the rebels reportedly rush into deep caves when they hear the whistling shells or the roar of the jets.
The Kurdish provinces of northern Iraq are the country's most stable and prosperous area. But to neighboring Iran and Turkey, both with large Kurdish minorities, they are something else: an inspiration and a support base for the Kurdish rebels in their own countries.
Turkey has already been pressing the U.S.-backed Iraqi government to clamp down on Kurdish guerrillas who use Iraq as a base. The Iranians and Turks fear Kurdish success in creating an autonomous region in northern Iraq, and the prosperity of their enclave, encourages their own Kurdish minorities.
The U.S. has been providing Turkey with intelligence from its Predator drones and now Erdogan says Washington is likely to agree to the deployment of Predators on Turkish soil once its troops leave Iraq at the end of this year. Turkey already operates some Israeli-made Heron drones to stage pinpoint attacks against the rebels.
Kurdish rebels have dramatically escalated their attacks in Turkey since July, killing dozens of security personnel and at least 10 civilians -- including three people in a car bombing in the Turkish capital last week.
On Saturday, the rebels attacked a Turkish army outpost, killing six soldiers and wounding 11 in the country's southeast, authorities said. Three rebels also were killed in the ensuing clash near the town of Pervari in Siirt province.
The attacks came after Turkish warplanes started to bomb suspected Kurdish rebel hideouts in neighboring northern Iraq, including the main rebel base on Qandil, in mid-August in response to the surge in rebel violence. Turkey's military claimed to have killed up to 160 rebels in airstrikes in August, but the rebels disputed it.
Erdogan said Friday that Turkey would only halt its military drive if the rebels "lay down their arms," days after confirming reports that government officials met with representatives of Kurdish rebels in Europe. The secret talks, which apparently failed to produce any tangible results, came to light after some websites posted an audio recording from an alleged 2010 meeting. On Sunday, Erdogan left the door open for dialogue, while saying his country would maintain its fight against "terrorism."
"We say it very clearly: we will struggle against terrorism until the end, but we will also negotiate with those who prefer politics," Erdogan said. "Those who prefer politics can talk to us, others can't."
Turkey has long realized that it can't finish off the rebel war through military measures alone, and the government has granted more cultural rights to the Kurdish minority such as broadcasts in the once-banned Kurdish language on state television. However, the rebels and the country's Kurdish political movement insist on autonomy and Kurdish education in schools which Turkey fears could divide the country along ethnic lines.
The conflict has killed tens of thousands of people in Turkey since the rebels took up arms in 1984.