Turkish army on offensive, 8 troops missing near Iraq

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SIRNAK, Turkey, Oct 22 (Reuters) Turkey today said eight of its soldiers were missing a day after clashes with Kurdish rebels near the Iraqi border, in which at least 12 soldiers were killed.

The General Staff also said 34 rebels from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) were killed in the clashes, two more than reported earlier.

The pro-PKK Firat news agency said eight Turkish soldiers had been captured and gave the names of seven men. Turkey has denied some of its soldiers were captured in the fighting.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan yesterday said he expected the United States to take ''swift'' steps against the PKK, many based in northern Iraq.

Turkey has deployed as many as 100,000 troops, backed by tanks, F-16 fighter jets and attack helicopters along its border with Iraq in anticipation of a possible incursion.

Asked about any pending attack, Defence Minister Vecdi Gonul yesterday said: ''Not urgently. They are planning a cross-border (incursion)...We'd like to do these things with the Americans.'' The United States and Iraq have called on Turkey to refrain from a military push into the largely autonomous Kurdish region, one of the few relatively stable parts of the Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003.

Turkey estimates 3,000 rebels from the PKK are based across the border and a series of recent attacks on Turkish forces has put intense pressure on Erdogan to act.

Turkey believes US forces could, if they wanted, capture PKK leaders in the Qandil mountains, shut down their camps and cut off supply routes and logistics support.

US HESITANT But Washington is hesitant as such moves could destabilise Iraq's Kurdish region and hurt the regional authority there if it looked as if it were siding with Turkey against fellow Kurds.

Turkish media said more than 200 rebels were involved in the clashes on the Turkish side of the border over the weekend.

Gonul, speaking in Kiev after meeting US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, said 17 soldiers were killed and 10 were missing.

The Turkish losses, among the worst in a decade, came four days after parliament overwhelmingly approved a motion to allow troops to cross into northern Iraq.

Erdogan today chaired a weekly cabinet meeting, which was expected to focus on the rebels. He was due in London later on an official visit. President Abdullah Gul briefed opposition party leaders on the situation.

Opposition leader Deniz Baykal today repeated his demand for an urgent cross-border operation. In Ankara, some 8,000 students joined an anti-PKK rally, one of many staged in the past 24 hours in this Muslim country of 75 million.

The Turkish lira currency fell three percent to 1.2360 against the dollar and the Istanbul stock exchange fell five percent early today on concerns of a cross-border offensive.

Turkey's tougher stance has helped propel global oil prices to record highs over the past week. The PKK has said it might target pipelines carrying Iraqi and Caspian crude across Turkey.

US President George W Bush condemned yesterday's 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.

REUTERS SG PM1815

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