Iraq vows to arrest Kurdish rebel leaders

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ISTANBUL, Nov 3 (Reuters) Iraq said today it was ready to hunt down and arrest Kurdish guerrilla leaders responsible for cross-border raids into Turkey in an effort to avert a major incursion by the Turkish military.

Major powers and countries in the region, meeting in Istanbul to discuss Iraqi security, are seeking to ease tensions on the Turkish-Iraqi border that could escalate into a bigger regional crisis.

Turkey wants leaders of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) arrested and seeks the closure of camps in northern Iraq which they use as bases for cross-border attacks in their 23-year-old campaign for a homeland in southeast Turkey.

Amid intensified diplomacy between Turkey, Iraq and the United States, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki met Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul.

''The prime minister renewed the willingness of the Iraqi government to take steps to isolate the terrorist PKK, prevent any help reaching its members, chase and arrest them, and put them in front of the Iraqi judiciary because of their terrorist activities,'' Maliki's office said in a statement.

Maliki's spokesman added that Baghdad did not rule out joint military action with Ankara, although Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said: ''I think there is a whole number of measures to be taken before getting to that.'' A Turkish senior diplomat, who declined to be named, told Reuters a meeting between Turkey, Iraq and the United States ''wasn't satisfactory for Turkey'' because old promises rather than new concrete proposals were presented.

Turkey is impatient at what it sees as US and Iraqi foot-dragging over the threat from the PKK and has massed 100,000 troops on the border for a possible offensive against about 3,000 rebels using Iraq as a base.

But the government in Baghdad has little influence over the semi-autonomous Kurdish regions in the north and the success of any measures against PKK militants would depend on the cooperation of Kurdish authorities. Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani has so far refused to arrest PKK members.

''Terrorists should not use Iraqi land to attack innocent people in other countries,'' Maliki said earlier, repeating an earlier pledge to shut the PKK's offices.

In northern Iraq, a Kurdish official said the regional government had shut down the offices of a political party which sympathises with the PKK, the Kurdistan Democratic Solution Party.

GUERRILLA ATTACKS The so-called ''neighbours' conference'', hosted by Turkey, was meant to focus on improving security in Iraq but has been overshadowed by the fall-out from PKK guerrilla attacks launched from Iraq and concerns for regional stability.

''Our objective is to have an Iraq that has stability and safety and that does not create threats for its neighbours,'' Erdogan told the opening session.

He has come under pressure to act after dozens of Turkish soldiers have been killed in PKK attacks in recent weeks.

Several thousands protested in the capital Ankara today, the latest in a series of demonstrations.

''It is clearly unacceptable that Iraq's territory is used to mount cross border attacks,'' UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the meeting of dozens of foreign ministers, held in an Ottoman palace on the banks of the Bosphorus.

After mounting public pressure by Turkey, Rice has promised more action from the United States but provided scant details on how far Washington was prepared to go except to offer improved intelligence-sharing on the PKK.

No major announcements were made during Rice's two-day visit, or at the conference, partly because she did not want to upstage a meeting on Monday in Washington between Erdogan and President George W Bush.

A declaration after today's meeting of ministers from major western powers and the region included condemnation of all terrorism in Iraq, applauded bilateral arrangements between Iraq and its neighbours and supported the country's full sovereignty.

The United States supports limited strikes by Turkey on PKK training sites but opposes any large-scale invasion.

''It would blow up the whole region, both inside Turkey and inside Iraq. It is risky to have 100,000 soldiers on the border,'' said French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.

REUTERS AM AS2119

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