Kurds on Turkish border uneasy about Iraq incursion

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ULUDERE, Turkey, Oct 15 (Reuters) The prospect of a Turkish army incursion against Kurdish rebels in Iraq stirred unease among villagers in southeast Turkey today as the government prepared to seek authorisation for an operation.

Despite an imminent parliamentary ruling on the issue and intense military preparations along the heavily fortified border, life went on as normal in Uludere, nestled in a valley beneath the sheer cliffs along the Iraqi border.

Uniformed children walked to school, women ran household errands and traders chatted outside empty shops as rain poured.

Shattering the air of normality, nearby soldiers wielding metal detectors searched for roadside mines at the front of army foot patrols monitoring the surrounding mountains. Armoured vehicles and helicopters patrolled intermittently.

Uludere is in Sirnak province, at the heart of a 23-year-old conflict between the military and Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) guerrillas and could be a launchpad for any incursion.

''People don't want an operation. It will only cause harm,'' said shopkeeper Omer Alturk, 28, one of the few people willing to give his name among locals wary of attracting attention.

The PKK, considered a terrorist organisation by the United States, Turkey and the European Union, began its armed campaign for an ethnic homeland in southeast Turkey in 1984. More than 30,000 people have been killed in the conflict.

On Friday, the area witnessed a skirmish between Turkish troops and PKK militants, which sent locals fleeing from the streets as gunfire echoed in the mountains. The general staff responded with a statement, vowing to repel any such attacks.

''We are scared. On one side is the (PKK) organisation, on one side the military and the village guards. We are caught between them,'' said Ahmet Turk, 55, a shopkeeper wearing a black-and-white Kurdish headscarf and baggy trousers.

PRESSURE TO ACT The government is expected to seek approval from parliament for a cross-border operation early this week, but locals were sceptical that much would change in the restive region.

''We understand nothing about politics. Many rulings have been passed in parliament but nothing has changed,'' Turk said.

Some 3,000 PKK fighters are based in camps in northern Iraq and many frequently cross the border to launch attacks.

Turkey's large-scale incursions in 1995 and 1997, involving an estimated 35,000 and 50,000 troops respectively, failed to dislodge PKK rebels from the Iraqi mountains.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan is under growing pressure after a series of major attacks on security personnel in the region which have caused the deaths of 30 soldiers in two weeks.

A major offensive, regarded by analysts as unlikely, would strain ties with Washington which fears it may destabilise a relatively peaceful part of Iraq and the wider region.

While politicians in Ankara weighed up the decision for military action, locals in Uludere said their main preoccupation was the lack of employment in a region where the main source of income was cross-border smuggling of sheep, fuel and sugar.

''People here are just trying to make a living. In every house there are four or five kids to feed,'' said 21-year-old Servet Inan, who hoped to study at university in Istanbul.

''They are focused on the parliamentary ruling, but why don't they attach as much importance to education,'' he said.

REUTERS SKB PM1833

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