Iraq says Kurdish rebels will announce ceasefire

(GUARDIAN) - Kurdish rebels will announce a ceasefire tonight, the Iraqi president said today, with the news coming amid hectic diplomatic efforts to avert a Turkish attack on northern Iraq.

"We confirm that President [Jalal] Talabani said at Sulaimaniya airport that the PKK [the outlawed Kurdistan Workers party] will announce a ceasefire this evening," an aide to Mr Talabani told Reuters.

The Turkish foreign minister, Ali Babacan, today stressed Ankara would continue with "diplomatic efforts" to deal with the crisis.

However, he said the possibility of a military incursion remained if US and Iraqi leaders failed to clamp down on cross-border attacks by PKK fighters based in northern Iraq.

Eight Turkish soldiers were still missing after a deadly ambush, blamed on Kurdish rebels, in which at least 12 troops died. The developments have intensified pressure on the Turkish government to order an invasion of northern Iraq to crush the rebels.

In Washington, the US state department launched a diplomatic offensive to prevent a Turkish invasion, which it fears will destabilise the only relatively peaceful part of Iraq.

A spokesman said the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, had telephoned the Turkish prime minister, Tayyip Erdogan, and the leader of Iraq's Kurdish region, Massoud Barzani, "to encourage Turkey and Iraq to work together to address what is a common threat."

"She underlined to President Barzani the importance of Iraq working actively with the Turkish government to counter what is a real threat to Turkish citizens," the spokesman said.

"We want to see an outcome where you have the Turks and the Iraqis working together, and we will do what we can to resolve the issue without a Turkish cross-border incursion."

A Kurdish press agency has released the names of seven of eight men who were taken hostage after the clash, in south-eastern Turkey, which Ankara has blamed on PKK guerrillas.

Turkish armed forces have already stepped up a bombardment against Kurdish rebels on the Iraqi side of the border, and the military said 34 rebels had so far been killed in the offensive.

"Despite all search efforts, no contact has been established with eight missing personnel since shortly after the armed attack on the military unit," a military statement said today.

Military convoys are continuing to head towards Turkey's border with Iraq, adding to the build up of tens of thousands of troops in the area.

Speaking in Kuwait during a tour of Arab states, Mr Babacan played down the immediate threat of a Turkish invasion of northern Iraq.

"We will continue these diplomatic efforts with all good intentions to solve this problem caused by a terrorist organisation," he said.

"But in the end, if we do not reach any results, there are other means we might have to use."

Last week, the Turkish parliament granted the government permission to send troops into northern Iraq to fight the PKK.

"Getting the authorisation does not mean we will use it immediately," Mr Babacan said. "We would rather find a solution through diplomacy and dialogue. But it should be known that there will be no hesitation to use this permission ... if need be."

Mr Erdogan is expected to discuss the crisis with Gordon Brown tomorrow during a two-day visit to London.

A spokesman for Mr Brown said Britain had urged the Iraqi authorities "to take the necessary steps to prevent the use of Iraqi territory" for cross border raids by the PKK.

"We encourage the Turkish government to continue to seek a solution through dialogue with the Iraqi government," he said.

Earlier, Mr Erdogan agreed to give the US a few days to act against Kurdish separatists, although his government stressed it would pay "any price" to protect its citizens from attacks.

Mr Talabani said he wanted the situation to be resolved peacefully but had already ruled handing over any PKK suspects to Turkey.

"We have appealed to the PKK to desist fighting and transform themselves from a military organisation into a civilian and political one," he said.

"If they insist on the continuation of fighting, they should leave Kurdistan of Iraq and not create problems here. We will not hand any Kurdish man to Turkey, even a Kurdish cat," he said.

Turkey is well aware that any action in Iraq would damage its relations with both Washington and the EU, but could find internal pressure to launch an attack impossible to resist.

Protesters have marched in several cities, including Istanbul. The nationalist newspaper Cumhuriyet carried the headline "Enough is enough" today.

The Turkish soldiers died during a large operation against PKK rebels in the Oramar area of Hakkari province, where the borders of Iran, Iraq and Turkey converge.

PKK guerillas reportedly blew up a bridge as a Turkish military convoy was crossing it. In the fighting that ensued, the Turkish military said it had killed 32 rebels.

A spokesman for the PKK told the Guardian guerillas had killed 17 Turkish soldiers as they ambushed a military convoy heading towards the Iraqi border. The rebel group had also taken eight "prisoners of war". He said the PKK had suffered no losses.

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