President Tayyip Erdogan has warned Iraq that Turkey will “clean up” a refugee camp which it says provides a safe haven for Kurdish militants, threatening to take its long military campaign deeper inside Iraqi territory.
Turkish forces have stepped up attacks on bases of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) inside northern Iraq over the last year, focusing their firepower and incursions mainly on a strip of territory up to 30 km (about 20 miles) inside Iraq.
But Erdogan said Makhmour, a camp 180 km south of the Turkish border which has hosted thousands of Turkish refugees for more than two decades, was an “incubator” for militants and must be tackled.
“If the United Nations does not clean it up, we will do it as a UN member,” Erdogan said, adding that Ankara believed Makhmour posed as great a threat as the PKK’s stronghold in the Qandil mountains further north.
“How long are we supposed to be patient about it?” he told Turkish state broadcaster TRT in an interview late on Tuesday.
A senior Iraqi official told Reuters that Turkey complained last week to Baghdad about “terrorist activities launched by the PKK from their camp in Makhmour against Turkey”.
Security commanders and local officials investigated the Turkish complaint and told the government that the Makhmour camp was controlled by PKK fighters who did not allow access to government forces, the official said.
An Iraqi government spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The camp was established in the 1990s when thousands of Kurds from Turkey crossed the border in a movement Ankara says was deliberately provoked by the PKK.
The PKK, designated a terrorist organisation by the United States and European Union, has fought an insurgency against the state in mainly Kurdish southeast Turkey since 1984. More than 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict.
Makhmour was targeted by Turkish air strikes a year ago, although there were no reports of casualties at the time, but a senior Turkish official said it was now a priority for Ankara.
“Makhmour camp is being used as one of the logistics centres in attacks against Turkey or the Turkish Armed Forces,” the official said. “It’s time now, it has to be cleansed of PKK.”