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Soldiers' Arrest is 'Biggest Crisis of Confidence Between Turkish, US Forces,' says Turkey's Army Chief - 2003-07-07


Turkey's army chief is expressing anger over the arrest last week of 11 Turkish soldiers in northern Iraq by the United States.

Speaking to reporters after a meeting with outgoing U.S. Ambassador Robert Pearson, General Hilmi Ozkok, Turkey's top military official, described Friday's arrests as the biggest crisis of confidence between Turkish and U.S. forces.

Some analysts say General Ozkok's comments are a clear signal that Turkey is not ready to de-escalate the crisis between the two NATO allies. The incident began Friday when some 100 U.S. forces raided the offices of Turkish special forces operating in the Kurdish-controlled province of Sulaiymaniyah in northern Iraq and detained 11 Turkish soldiers

In comments in the U.S. media, unidentified U.S. officials were quoted as saying the arrests were made to stop a plot by the Turks to assassinate the ethnic Kurdish governor of the oil-rich province of Kirkuk in northern Iraq.

Turkey has rejected those claims.

A committee made up of officials from Turkey and the United States is set to convene Tuesday in northern Iraq to investigate the incident.

The detentions have cast a further pall on strained relations between the two NATO allies. In March, before the U.S.-led war in Iraq, Turkey's parliament rejected a bill that would have permitted the United States to station thousands of troops on Turkish territory. The Turkish parliament's defeat of the bill frustrated U.S. hopes to launch a northern front against Saddam Hussein from Turkish soil.

About 2,000 Turkish troops remain in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, part of a force deployed in the region since the end of the 1991 Gulf War to hunt down Turkish Kurds belonging to the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party. The PKK rebels are based in the mountainous Kurdish enclave.

But leaders of the two main Iraqi Kurdish factions administering northern Iraq have long insisted that the Turkish military presence has become unnecessary, following a ceasefire declared by the PKK in the wake of the capture of their leader, Abdullah Ocalan, in 1999.

The Iraqi Kurds accuse Turkey of seeking to destabilize their regional government.

A spokesman for the Turkish government says that Turkey would continue to keep its forces in northern Iraq for as long as the circumstances requiring their presence prevail.

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