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Turkey's Top Military Official Defends Country's Right to Deploy Troops - 2003-03-26

Turkey's top military officer has defended his country's right to deploy troops into Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq.

Speaking at a news conference in the largely Kurdish city of Diyarbakir in southeastern Turkey, General Ozkok stressed his country's desire to act in coordination with coalition forces in northern Iraq.

According to General Ozkok, Turkey has no immediate plans to deploy forces in Northern Iraq, but he made it clear that the Turkish government reserved the right to do so under certain circumstances.

General Ozkok explained what those circumstances might be. He said in the event of a mass exodus of refugees fleeing fighting in Iraq, a Turkish presence could help alleviate a potential humanitarian crisis.

The general spoke one day after Turkish Foreign Minster Abdullah Gul said Ankara will send troops up to 20 kilometers inside Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq if a refugee crisis erupts. The foreign minister said Turkey plans to set up tent cities for refugees on a strip of land 20 kilometers inside Iraqi territory and that Turkish troops would guard these camps.

General Ozkok also said that a Turkish presence in northern Iraq would prevent large numbers of refugees from crossing into Turkey, as they did during the last Gulf war.

Western diplomats in Ankara say General Ozkok's remarks indicate a softening in Ankara's insistence on the need for a Turkish military presence in northern Iraq.

The Bush administration has made very clear in recent days its opposition to Turkish intervention in northern Iraq because it fears conflicts between Turkish and local Kurdish forces.

Iraqi Kurdish leaders have repeatedly threatened to respond militarily should Turkey deploy troops in their enclave.