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New fighting between Turkish troops and Kurdish guerrillas leaves 15 rebels dead

ANKARA, Turkey — Turkish troops killed 15 Kurdish guerrillas in fighting Sunday far from the increasingly tense Iraq border region where some of the separatists have sought refuge, a news report said. Turkey's prime minister called for unity between Turks and Kurds against the rebels.

The clash occurred in the mainly Kurdish province of Tunceli, which is not near the border with Iraq where most of the recent clashes have occurred. The governor's office for Tunceli confirmed there was fighting in the province but would not confirm casualty figures. The private Dogan news agency reported the deaths of 15 rebels.

The government-run Anatolia news agency said the fighting began Sunday morning and the Turkish troops were backed by helicopter gunships. Security forces shut down a major highway leading to Pulumur, it said. It did not mention casualties.

Tunceli is some 340 miles northeast of the province of Sirnak and 400 miles northeast from Hakkari, the province where most of the recent fighting with the rebels have taken place. Sirnak and Hakkari border Iraq.

"As long as we are firmly bound together, the treacherous separatist terrorist attacks will never reach their goal," Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a message ahead of Oct. 29 celebrations marking the 84th anniversary of the Turkish republic.

"I want to declare this one more time: The struggle we lead against the separatist terrorism that aims to destroy our unity and our constitutional order will continue with belief and determination," he said.

Kurds make up an estimated 30 percent of the Turkish population, and are located mostly in Turkey's relatively poor southeastern region, near the borders with Iraq, Iran and Syria.

Turkey does not consider the Kurds to be a distinct ethnic group and therefore does not grant them minority rights. Turkey's Kurds have long claimed discrimination and demanded increased cultural rights. Speaking Kurdish was illegal in Turkey until 1991.

Turkey has been threatening to stage a cross-border military offensive into Iraq to hunt down the rebels who maintain bases there.

The conflict dates back to 1984 but clashes between government forces and guerrilla fighters have been escalating since the rebels broke a cease-fire in 2004.

Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, fighters have killed at least 42 people in the past month. Those casualties included some 30 Turkish soldiers in two ambushes that were the boldest attacks in years.

There is increased anger toward the PKK in Turkey, and tens of thousands of Turks have staged street protests in several Turkish cities condemning the guerrillas and pushing for action since last Sunday, when 12 soldiers were killed in a Kurdish rebel ambush. The PKK said it was holding eight other soldiers captive.

Military helicopters have been shuttling more troops to the mountains near Iraq, while patrols secure roads and checkpoints. The Turkish government has not said how many troops are now in place, but local media has been reporting between 100,000 and 150,000 soldiers are massed in the region, squaring off against some 3,000 to 4,000 PKK fighters.

On Sunday, an AP Television News cameraman saw a platoon returning from a mission to secure a road near the border. About half a dozen helicopters flew along the frontier.

The United States, Iraq and other countries have been pressing for Turkey to refrain from cross-border military operations.

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

Talks between Iraqi and Turkish officials on Friday failed to produce any breakthroughs and the Iraqi delegation returned home on Saturday.

In Tehran, Iran's foreign minister accused the U.S. and Israel of supporting Kurdish separatists in northern Iraq. His Turkish counterpart distanced himself from the claim, saying he didn't think Washington was behind the Iraq-based rebels.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told reporters in Tehran at a news conference with Ali Babacan, Turkey's foreign minister, that "terrorist activities" have increased in northern Iraq since "foreign forces" arrived there.

"From our point of view, efforts by Israel and the U.S. are behind some terrorist activities. Most probably, some secret agreements have caused a lack of confrontation against terrorism," Mottaki said, referring to Iraq-based Kurdish rebels.

"We hope this part of the U.S. policy would be corrected," he said.

Babacan, who was in Iran to lobby for support for the Turkish side in its conflict with the PKK, expressed gratitude for Iran's cooperation but did not back Mottaki's accusations against the U.S. and Israel, which are Turkish allies.

"I don't like to think that the U.S. supports a terrorist group," Babacan said.