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Last Updated: Tuesday, 26 February 2008, 19:56 GMT
Iraq denounces Turkish offensive
A Turkish soldier in snow camouflage aims his rifle somewhere on the border with Iraq (image released by Turkey's military on 24 February)
Turkey says it is defending itself from rebel attacks
The Iraqi government has denounced a Turkish incursion into northern Iraq in some of the strongest terms heard since the operation began last week.

In a statement, the Iraqi cabinet expressed its "rejection and condemnation" of the operation.

It called on Ankara to withdraw its troops immediately.

Snow was impeding operations, Turkey's military said, as fighting entered a fifth day and was said to be close to a rebel base in the Zap valley.

The Turkish military says it has killed 153 rebels and lost 19 soldiers since the cross-border attack began on Thursday night.

The rebels of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) say they have killed 81 soldiers. Neither report can be independently verified.

Clashes are also reported to be continuing in the mountainous area of Hakurk.

Ankara accuses the Iraqi government of failing to stop the PKK from using the area as a safe haven.

'Fierce fighting'

The Iraqi cabinet statement, released by spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh, condemned Turkish "military interference", calling it a "violation of Iraq's sovereignty".

Unidentified armed Kurdish men pass a bridge used by the PKK in Iraq, destroyed by a Turkish air attack, on 24 February
Kurdish fighters say they have hit back hard at Turkey's forces

It came hours after the deputy speaker of the Kurdish regional parliament decried the incursion and the response from Baghdad, during an emergency session.

Kamal al-Kirkuki said the Iraqi central government should have been "taking the lead in dealing with this problem", but had "acted weakly" in its response.

Two Turkish soldiers were killed overnight by rebels using "long-distance guns", the Turkish military said, adding that the attackers had been "silenced". Their losses could not be verified because of the bad weather, it added.

PKK fighters have been taking advantage of the bad weather, which is said to be preventing Turkish air support, to attack Turkish positions, Kurdish media inside Iraq report.

MAJOR TURKISH INCURSIONS
February 2008 - number of troops unknown
September-October 1997 - about 15,000 troops
May-July 1997 - about 30,000 troops
March-May 1995 - about 35,000 troops
numbers refer to reported initial deployments

"Fierce fighting erupted, inflicting heavy casualties on both sides" in the Nerwe and Rekan areas, according to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan media website.

Other Kurdish reports speak of sustained fighting overnight in the Zap valley, about 6km (four miles) from the border.

The camp is used to store rebel equipment and arms, a senior source in the Turkish military told Reuters news agency.

The source said that should the camp fall, it would be "a big blow to the PKK's morale".

Operation defended

On Monday, thousands of residents in Diyarbakir, the main city in Turkey's mainly Kurdish south-east took to the streets to protest against the operation.

A demonstration against Turkey's offensive in the city of Diyarbakir in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish south-east
Thousands protested in the Turkish city of Diyarbakir on Monday

Residents of some villages near the Turkish-Iraqi border complain they are being targeted in Turkish air strikes and artillery bombardments.

Speaking in parliament, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan insisted that "terrorists", not civilians, were the targets.

Turkey, he added, had "the right to eradicate those who destroy the peace and comfort of its citizens".

Mr Erdogan thanked the US for providing intelligence for its operation.

Washington has not condemned the offensive, but urges Ankara to show restraint and withdraw its forces as soon as possible.

More than 30,000 people have been killed since the PKK began fighting for a Kurdish homeland in south-eastern Turkey in 1984.

The US, the EU and Turkey regard the PKK as a terrorist organisation.



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