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Iraq Kurd faction says fighting PKK 'infiltration'
TUNCELI, Turkey (Reuters) -- An Iraqi Kurdish faction on Monday blamed a Turkish Kurdish rebel group for starting heavy fighting that may have killed scores of people in the northern Iraqi enclave.
The fighting between two groups that normally live in relative peace suggests shifting balances in the enclave, which the United States wants to shape into a united bulwark against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
The Iraqi government has had no direct control over northern Iraq since the end of the 1991 Gulf War. The two Kurdish groups that run the region are protected from Iraqi government attack by U.S.-led air patrols flying from Turkey.
The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the two main factions, said its forces had clashed with rebels of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) after the guerrillas entered PUK-controlled territory.
"This is not a campaign against the PKK," a PUK spokesman told Reuters. "We are defending our area from PKK infiltration."
He said nine of the PUK's lightly-armed "peshmerga" fighters had been killed since the fighting broke out last week.
Turkish military sources said the fighting had killed 15 PKK and two PUK peshmergas.
Turkey maintains a military presence in the enclave and closely watches PKK activity. The PKK rebels have fought 16 years of separatist conflict in southeast Turkey and keep bases in northern Iraq.
A PKK executive committee member, speaking on Kurdish television channel Medya TV on Sunday, said three PKK units, totaling about 200 people, had suffered heavy losses, but did not give a death toll.
Turkey severely limits access to northern Iraq, making independent confirmation difficult.
The PKK has concentrated its forces in the enclave after jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan ordered a withdrawal from Turkey and an end to the armed struggle. The call came after sweeping Turkish military successes against the rebels.
That PKK move to northern Iraq threatens the balance between the PUK and its rival Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). The two groups signed a U.S.-brokered peace deal two years ago, but their squabbles over power and oil-revenue sharing continue.
The Turkish military frequently cross the border into northern Iraq in pursuit of the PKK, and KDP men have fought the PKK alongside Turkish soldiers.
Jalal Talabani, head of the PUK, promised the Turkish government in July his "peshmerga" fighters would do more to combat the PKK at the border between Turkey and Iraq.
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