However Buyukanit said that even if the military favoured such an operation, it would have to be authorised by the government.

 

"If you ask me whether a cross-border operation is needed, yes it is needed. It would be useful," the general told a rare press conference.

 

"But there is a second dimension to that: it requires a political decision."

Base for attacks

 

Buyukanit also said that the Turkish army was already conducting substantial operations against PKK members in Turkey.

 

"There are several large-scale operations under way in several areas," Buyukanit told reporters.

 

"Our aim is to prevent them from taking positions in the region with the coming spring."

 

For years Turkey has urged the Iraq's national government, the Kurdish regional government and US-led forces in the country to tackle the estimated 4,000 rebels from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) who shelter in Kurdish-ruled northern Iraq.

 

Ankara has said it reserves the right under international law to send troops into northern Iraq to fight the PKK if Iraq and Washington continue to disregard its calls for action.

 

The US reacted negatively to Buyukanit's comments.

 

"Ideally you do not have to resort to cross-border operations. That is not an appealing option," said Sean McCormack, US state department spokesman.

 

"Certainly that is an option that everyone should work to avoid."

 

Intelligence reports

 

Political analysts say Turkey is unlikely to mount a full-blown invasion of northern Iraq, but could authorise cross-border commando operations or air raids against PKK targets.

 

Massoud Barzani, leader of Iraq's Kurdish population, recently commented that Iraqi Kurds would interfere in Turkey's mainly Kurdish cities if Ankara interfered in northern Iraq, drawing anger from Ankara.

 

Buyukanit also said Turkey's military had received intelligence that Kurdish guerrillas would step up their activities in Turkey from May.

 

He said 10 members of the armed forces had been killed in clashes with PKK fighters in recent days during a military offensive in southeast Turkey, with 29 PKK members killed during the same period.

 

More than 30,000 people have been killed since the PKK launched its armed struggle to win greater civil rights and regional autonomy for Turkey's Kurdish minority in 1984.