Rebels kill 17 Turk troops, PM holds crisis talks

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TUNCELI, Turkey, Oct 21 (Reuters) Kurdish rebels killed 17 Turkish soldiers and wounded 16 others in an ambush today, prompting Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan to call crisis talks to consider a military strike against rebel bases in Iraq.

The attack, the worst in more than a decade by rebels of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), came four days after Turkey's parliament overwhelmingly approved a motion to allow troops to enter northern Iraq to fight guerrillas hiding there.

''We are very angry. ... Our parliament has granted us the authority to act and within this framework we will do whatever has to be done,'' an ashen-faced Erdogan told reporters.

Senior military and government officials began the crisis talks today evening at the presidential palace in Ankara under President Abdullah Gul to plot Turkey's response.

Defence Minister Vecdi Gonul told reporters in Kiev after talks with US Defense Secretary Robert Gates that 17 soldiers had been killed, 16 injured and 10 others were still missing.

Asked if there would be a military response to those attacks, Gonul said: ''Not urgently. They (Turkish troops) are planning a cross-border (incursion) ... We'd like to do these things with the Americans.'' The United States, Turkey's NATO ally, and Iraq have urged Ankara to refrain from military action, fearing this could destabilise the most peaceful part of Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein.

Gates said he did not believe Ankara would launch a major cross-border operation imminently. He also said Gonul implied there was reluctance to act unilaterally against the PKK.

US President George W Bush condemned the attacks.

''Attacks from Iraqi territory need to be dealt with swiftly by the Iraqi government and Kurdish Regional authorities,'' White House National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said in a statement. ''The United States, Turkey and Iraq will continue to stand together to defeat the PKK terrorists.'' Turkey's tougher stance has helped propel global oil pricesto record highs over the past week. The PKK has said it might target pipelines carrying Iraqi and Caspian crude cross Turkey.

CLASHES CONTINUE Turkey's military general staff said 32 rebels were killed in continuing clashes in the southeast. Turkey shelled areas inside Iraq today morning but no casualties were reported.

Abdul Rahman Jaderji, a senior official in the PKK in northern Iraq, said the rebels had killed 40 soldiers. The number could not be independently verified.

The pro-PKK Firat news agency, which is based in western Europe, said eight soldiers had also been taken hostage. Gonul denied any soldiers had been kidnapped.

''We cannot give details on how many we have captured, all I can say is that they are not in Iraq. They are in Turkey,'' a senior PKK source told Reuters.

In a separate incident on Sunday, a landmine killed one civilian and wounded at least 13 more in a minibus travelling in a wedding convoy near to where the soldiers were killed.

Some 3,000 PKK rebels, including its leaders, are believed to be based in camps in the mountainous region of northern Iraq.

Iraq's government said it was taking important steps to end what it called the ''terrorist actions'' of the Kurdish rebels.

But Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani said his autonomous region would defend itself if Turkish troops invaded.

''We are not going to be caught up in the PKK and Turkish war, but if the Kurdistan region is targeted, then we are going to defend our citizens,'' Barzani told reporters after meeting Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who is also a Kurd.

Talabani called on the PKK to cease fighting and to turn itself into a political organisation. ''If they insist on continuing to fight they must leave Iraqi Kurdistan,'' he said.

Turkey's military has deployed as many as 100,000 troops, backed by tanks and attack helicopters, along the border.

With the death toll among Turkish security forces around 40 for the past month alone, Erdogan's government is under heavy domestic pressure to pursue the PKK into northern Iraq.

Turks staged anti-PKK rallies across the country after Sunday's deaths. Opposition politicians urged the government to send troops into Iraq now.

Erdogan has appeared reluctant to launch an incursion, and Western diplomats said Turkey was concerned about the security, diplomatic and economic risks of such a move, but the latest rebel attacks may have made a military strike inevitable.

Ankara blames the PKK for the deaths of more than 30,000 people since the group launched its armed campaign for an ethnic homeland in southeast Turkey in 1984. The United States, Turkey and European Union class the PKK as a terrorist organisation.

REUTERS GL RAI2341

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