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Turkish premier says his country will fight Iraq-based Kurdish rebels 'when needed'

ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey's prime minister said Saturday that his country would take steps to fight Iraq-based Kurdish rebels "when needed," regardless of international pressure.

Turkey has been under intense pressure from the United States, Iraq and other countries to refrain from a cross-border offensive against the rebels, which they say will destabilize one of Iraq's most stable regions.

"Whenever an operation is needed to be carried out, we will do that," Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told a Turkish flag-waving crowd in the western city of Izmit. "We do not need to ask anything from anyone for that. Some (countries) might have other wishes, but we make our decisions on our own."

The Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, has killed at least 42 people in the past month, including around 30 Turkish soldiers in two ambushes. Turkish troops, meanwhile, repelled another attack by a large Kurdish rebel group Tuesday as it tried to sneak across the border, the military said.

On Friday, Turkey's military chief said the country would wait until Erdogan met with President Bush on Nov. 5 in Washington before deciding on any cross-border offensive.

But Erdogan said Turkey could not be pinned down by dates in deciding whether to attack: "We can't say when or how we will do it, we will just do it."

The PKK said it captured the eight Turkish soldiers in an operation on Oct. 21.

Ahmet Turk, a Kurdish member of Turkey's Parliament whose Democratic Society Party is often accused of having ties with the separatist rebels, called Wednesday for the soldiers to be released unharmed.

The government has not officially acknowledged that the soldiers were captured, but after the PKK released photos and video of them, Turk said there "appears to be evidence there are eight soldiers being held."

Speaking in the northern Iraqi city of Sulaimaniyah, PKK spokesman Abdul-Rahman Al-Chaderchi said the group was working on a response. "Within a short time we will end the issue of the captives," Al-Chaderchi told The Associated Press.

In the last major kidnapping, in 1995, Kurdish guerrillas grabbed eight soldiers and took them to bases in northern Iraq. They released the soldiers two years later after human rights activists, lawmakers and family members visited the rebel hide-out.

In Ankara, about 1,000 Turkish nationalists marched on the U.S. Embassy, accusing the United States of supporting the rebels by not cracking down on them in northern Iraq.

"Down with the U.S.A., down with the PKK," the group chanted, carrying pictures of Turkish soldiers slain in the conflict, before laying a black wreath at the embassy gate during the peaceful protest.

Another 1,500 people — mostly children — took to the streets of the predominantly Kurdish city of Sirnak, in southeastern Turkey near the Iraqi border, to protest the recent surge in rebel violence.

Waving red-and-white Turkish flags, people in the crowd chanted "martyrs never die, the nation will never be divided," in one of several protests in the border area. Hundreds more gathered in Istanbul's Taksim Square waving flags and images of modern Turkey's founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

A military campaign in Iraq could derail one of the few stable areas in Iraq, and trap the United States in an awkward position between key allies: NATO-member Turkey, the Baghdad government and the self-governing Iraqi Kurds in the north.

For months, Turkey has demanded more action from the U.S. and Iraq in its fight against the PKK. The group has been fighting for Kurdish autonomy in southeast Turkey since 1984, and is labeled a terrorist group by Washington and the European Union.

In comments unlikely to ease Turkish frustration, the top American military commander in northern Iraq said Friday he planned to do "absolutely nothing" to counter Kurdish rebels operating from the region.

U.S. Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon said it was not the U.S. military's responsibility to act. Mixon said he had sent no extra American troops to the area, and was not tracking PKK hide-outs or logistics activities.

Meanwhile, Iraqi officials — including the defense minister — returned home Saturday after talks Friday in Ankara failed to produce any breakthroughs.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry said the Iraqi side was "approaching the issue with goodwill," but that its suggestion of reinforcing border outposts to prevent rebel incursions into Turkey and other offers were not the "urgent and determined" steps needed. It invited new talks, provided the Iraqis brought concrete proposals, CNN-Turk television reported

Turkey has demanded the extradition of PKK leaders. CNN-Turk television, citing unidentified Iraqi officials, said Ankara is seeking 153 PKK members.

An Iraqi official said, however, that he had expected the talks Friday would fail.

"Turkey wants imaginary and impossible demands. They want us to kill all PKK for them while they themselves cannot do that," said Iraqi Brig. Gen. Jabbar Yawar, an undersecretary for the ministry governing Kurdish protection forces known as Peshmerga.

Residents of Irbil, in the Kurdish-controlled north of Iraq, scoffed at the Turkish proposals.

"We as Kurds refuse to hand over to Turkey the 150 individuals, listed names which include the Kurdish leaders," Shorash Haida told AP Television News. "This will never happen."