General Bekir Kalyoncu, a Turkish military officer, said on Tuesday that Ankara reserved the right to enter Iraqi territory to pursue separatist Kurdish rebels based there.

 

"If the conditions arise, Turkey will use its rights as any sovereign country," he said.

 

Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, urged Turkey in late April to refrain from unilateral action against Iraq-based Kurdish separatists, calling instead for renewed trilateral co-operation to fight the threat.

 

State department spokesman Sean McCormack said: "We would call upon all of Iraq's neighbours to respect Iraq's sovereignty."

 

Turkey has deployed thousands of troops along its border with Iraq in what officials describe as a large-scale attempt to prevent infiltrations by rebels from the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), based in mountainous hideouts in northern Iraq.

 

Cooperation urged

McCormack also called on Iraq's neighbours to work in a transparent manner, and with the Iraqi government's agreement, on any issues regarding borders.

 

The Turkish army says Article 51 of the UN Charter provides for the right of "hot pursuit" on Iraqi territory of the PKK - blacklisted as a terrorist group by Ankara, the United States and the European Union.

 

Rice had asked Turkey to refrain
from unilateral action 

The Kurdish conflict in Turkey has claimed more than 37,000 lives since the PKK began its separatist campaign in 1984.

 

Turkey has been trying to prevent increasing infiltrations by the PKK.

 

Ankara has often urged Washington and Baghdad to root out the PKK from northern Iraq but has been told that violence in other parts of the conflict-torn country is their priority.

 

Attacks on the up

 

The PKK has markedly stepped up its fighting this year. At least 20 members of the security forces have been killed in clashes and landmine attacks blamed on the rebels, while the PKK has lost at least 53 people.

 

The Turkish army conducted incursions into northern Iraq before the 2003 US-led invasion, with the support of local Iraqi Kurds.

 

But relations between Ankara and the Iraqi Kurds have cooled since the invasion.

 

Washington also opposes cross-border operations on the grounds they could further complicate the already troubled security situation in Iraq.

 

Turkey has about 1,500 troops on Iraqi territory, stationed along the border since a major-cross border operation in 1997.

 

Guarding borders

 

Kalyoncu said the soldiers were responsible for border security and were not involved in operational activities, pledging they would remain there "as long as the terrorist organisation remains in the area," Anatolia reported.

 

"Regardless of where they are harboured, terrorist organisations sooner or later inflict harm on that region," he said. "We believe the Iraqi authorities are also aware of that and that's why we have not encountered any major problem so far regarding those troops."

 

On Sunday, Baghdad accused Iranian forces of entering five kilometres (three miles) into Iraq and shelling PKK positions.

 

For about a year, Iran, which has its own Kurdish minority, has been battling infiltrations by Pejak, a Kurdish group linked to the PKK.