by Hande Culpan and Jim Mannion*
Turkey said yesterday its offensive against Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq will continue "as long as necessary," rejecting pressure for a speedy end to the military incursion from US Defence Secretary Robert Gates.
Even as Gates held talks in Ankara, Turkish warplanes bombed positions of the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in northern Iraq and intensive fighting was reported on the ground near a major rebel base in the Zap area, Iraqi security sources said.
Turkish Defence Minister Vecdi Gonul refused to offer a timetable for a pull-out while giving assurances that the incursion, launched on February 21, posed no challenge to Iraqi sovereignity.
"Turkey will remain in northern Iraq as long as necessary," Gonul said after talks with Gates, adding that the troops will return home once PKK hideouts are destroyed.
"There is no need for us to stay there after we finish the terrorist infrastructure… We have no intention to interfere in (Iraqi) domestic politics, no intention to occupy any area," he said.
Gates pressed for the offensive to be "as short and precisely targeted as possible," and reiterated that it should last no longer than "a week or two".
Washington is particularly concerned that the incursion could broaden into a wider conflict between Turkish forces and the Kurdish administrators of northern Iraq — two key US allies.
Turkey has long accused the Iraqi Kurds of providing the PKK with safe haven and weapons. It warned the Iraqi Kurds this week not to shelter PKK rebels fleeing the fighting.
Gates urged Ankara to consider political and economic improvements for its sizeable Kurdish community to erode popular support for the PKK, which has fought for self-rule in Kurdish-majority southeast Turkey since 1984.
"Military action alone will not end this terrorist threat… There must be simultaneous efforts made with economic programs and political outreach.
"That's the only way to isolate terrorism from the population and provide a long-term solution to the problem," he said.
The Turkish government is already under pressure at home to improve Kurdish rights, tackle rampant poverty in the southeast and issue an amnesty for PKK rebels to encourage them to lay down arms.
The United States, like Turkey, lists the PKK as a terrorist group and has supported its NATO ally by providing intelligence on PKK movements in northern Iraq.
Gates played down suggestions the United States could cut off the intelligence supply if Turkey refuses to withdraw quickly.
"We have shared interests and I think those interests are probably not advanced by making threats or by threatening to cut intelligence," he said.
Gates is scheduled to meet Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President Abdullah Gul and Chief of General Staff Yasar Buyukanit before returning to Washington later yesterday.
The Turkish army says it has so far killed at least 230 PKK militants and destroyed dozens of rebel hideouts, camps and ammunition depots, while losing 27 men.
The PKK claims to have killed around 100 soldiers, lost five and to have downed a Turkish attack helicopter.
Ankara estimates some 4,000 rebels are holed up in northern Iraq.
The PKK took up arms for self-rule in southeast Turkey in 1984, sparking a conflict that has claimed more than 37,000 lives.
African Union chief and Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete pushed ahead yesterday with talks to end the Kenyan political crisis as fresh violence was reported in the Rift Valley region.
Kikwete chaired talks between President Mwai Kibaki, opposition chief Raila Odinga and former UN secretary general and chief mediator Kofi Annan in a fresh bid to resolve the two month crisis.
Former Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa, assisting Annan in the mediation, attended the talks in the presidential office.
Odinga accuses Kibaki of rigging the December 27 presidential election, and the contested outcome sparked violence across the country that claimed more than 1,500 lives.
Hundreds of thousands of people have also been uprooted, mainly in the capital's slums and Kenya's fertile western region, regarded as the country's breadbasket.
Two people were shot with arrows and more than 20 huts torched in fresh violence that erupted in the western Molo district overnight.
"They were attacked and shot with arrows when more than 100 youths raided villages and torched houses. They are admitted to Molo district hospital," said Rift Valley police commander Joseph Ashimala.
Police said most of the houses torched belong to people who had been evicted in December and returned a few days ago.
"Most of them had just re-settled back to their homes, but were attacked soon after and their houses torched. They are now homeless," said another police commander.
Ashimala said they had boosted security in the powderkeg region, the scene of sporadic tribal fighting since 1992.
Kenya's opposition had planned protests for yesterday aimed at pushing the government into a power-sharing agreement, but Odinga called them off at Annan's request.
Annan on Tuesday suspended negotiations between government and opposition representatives, citing lack of progress on the details of a prime minister's post as part of a political settlement.
Kibaki has said the post of prime minister and two deputies will be created under the current constitution pending a comprehensive constitutional review in 12 months.
Meanwhile opposition Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) top official William Ruto accused the government of failing to restore law and order as well as intimidating opposition supporters in a fresh salvo against the government.
"There are arbitrary arrests of innocent citizens. It is a systematic and consistent attempt by police to persecute and intimidate ODM supporters in the Rift Valley," Ruto told reporters in the Rift Valley capital Nakuru.
"There is an attempt by the government to insinuate that the violence in the Rift Valley was pre-planned, but the truth is the government-led failure in containing the situation," he added.
"Do not use innocent citizens as scapegoats to explain the security situation in the country. No amount of intimidation and harassment will stop Kenyans from asking for their rights. Fear cannot be used to govern Kenyans," he added.
Kenyan Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula on Wednesday rejected any imposed solution to end the crisis that has shaken the east African nation, once seen as an island of stability in a region beset by conflicts.
"Our international friends, as we have stated before, are welcome to make suggestions and to support the dialogue process but not to impose solutions," he said in a statement.