Turkish military confirms pullout from northern Iraq

(dpa) - The Turkish military Friday confirmed that its ground incursion into northern Iraq targeting Kurdish PKK fighters had come to an end.

The general staff said the objectives had been achieved and the soldiers were being pulled out. There had been no outside pressure for Turkey to make the move, a statement added.

Spokesman for the Iraqi government Ali al-Dabbagh said that Iraq welcomed the withdrawal. An "ordered withdrawal" began in the early hours of Friday morning, he said.

He said he hoped that contact between Ankara and Baghdad would not be broken, in order that there be no military confrontations in the future.

The news broadcaster CNN-Turk quoted Turkish military sources as saying some special units remained operating in northern Iraq.

The developments come a day after US Defence Secretary Robert Gates held talks with Turkish leaders and urged a quick end to the Turkish military operation in northern Iraq. President George W Bush also made the call in Washington at a press conference Thursday.

A spokesman of the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) said Friday that most Turkish troops had withdrawn from the Kurdish areas in northern Iraq.

"Large numbers of Turkish troops started already on Thursday to withdraw from the Zab valley in northern Iraq," Ahmed Danis, spokesman of the PKK, told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

He added that the Turkish forces left a number of troops behind in some areas of the Kurdish regions of Shamsho and Wasilo.

The online edition of the daily Hurriyet also reported on a Turkish troop withdrawal. But at the same time Kurdish sources in Iraq were cited as denying that there had been an end to the Turkish operation, which was launched on the night of February 21. They said operations were continuing in three regions.

Turkish media reports said the army had captured an important camp of the banned Kurdish Workers Party PKK in the Zap valley.

The broadcaster al-Arabiya, citing Kurdish fighters, said Turkish soldiers had withdrawn from the Zap river region after having laid mines.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said he believed that the Turkish soldiers had left Iraq.

President of the Autonomous Region of Kurdistan Massud Barzani said the US gave the Turkish government the green light to invade northern Iraq, Jordanian media reported.

"Unless the US gave its green light, Turkey would not have intensively attacked northern Iraq as we have seen. Although the US set limits for the attacks, the Turks did not even abide by them," Barzani was quoted as saying in the Jordanian al-Arab newspaper.

He added: " Throughout the attacks, we have observed the destruction of the Kurdish infrastructure and inhabited areas. This created a suspicious feeling about the real intentions behind the Turkish incursions.

"Are they fighting the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) or aiming at destroying the Kurdish region?" he asked.

Barzani described the reaction of the Iraqi government towards the Turkish incursions as "weak." He added the attacks were a clear violation of Iraq's sovereignty.

He said that the Kurdish peshmerga forces were not a part of the latest military operations between the Turkish forces and the PKK.

"Our decision is clear in this. We have repeatedly announced our willingness to resolve the conflict peacefully, but insisting on military ways will not lead to a fruitful result," Barzani said.

The existence of the PKK in some mountainous regions around the Autonomous Region of Kurdistan does not mean that the Kurdish government approves their presence in the area, he added.

He said, "We still repeat that the problem can not be resolved militarily, but rather peacefully".

An aide to top Shiite cleric Ali al-Sistani called upon the Turkish government to end military operations in northern Iraq and resolve the conflict peacefully.

"We do not allow that militants carry out their attacks from Iraq on any other country and we also reject that Iraq would threaten the security of any neighbouring state," sheikh Abdul Madhi al-Karbalaay told thousands of Shiites at the shrine of Imam Hussein, grandson of prophet Mohammed, during Friday prayers in the city of Najaf about 160 kilometres south of Baghdad.

Turkey had launched "Operation Gunes" on the night of February 21, with some 10,000 soldiers sent across the border to seek out PKK rebels and their camps.

According to a statement released by the Turkish military on Wednesday, 230 PKK fighters, 24 Turkish soldiers and three state- employed village guards had been killed in the operation.

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