ANKARA, Turkey -- The prime minister yesterday warned Iraqi Kurds against interfering in southeastern Turkey, where the Kurdish majority is fighting Turkish security forces, saying "the price for them will be very high."
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was responding to Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq, who said Iraqi Kurds would retaliate for any Turkish interference in northern Iraq by stirring up trouble in southeastern Turkey.
"He's out of place," Erdogan said of Barzani. "He'll be crushed under his words."
The verbal sparring was set off by Barzani on Saturday when he said in an interview with al-Arabiyah television that Iraqi Kurds could "interfere" in Kurdish-majority Turkish cities if Ankara interfered in northern Iraq.
The remark touched a nerve in Turkey, where more than 37,000 people have been killed in fighting between Turkish security forces and Kurdish rebels since 1984, most of them in the southeastern region bordering Iraq. Turkey fears that any moves toward greater independence for Kurds in northern Iraq could incite Turkey's own estimated 14 million Kurds to outright rebellion.
Turkey is especially concerned about Barzani's bid to incorporate the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk into his semiautonomous region, fearing that Iraqi Kurds will use revenues from the city's oil wealth to fund a bid for independence.
"Northern Iraq, which is a neighbor, is making a serious mistake: The price for them will be very high," Erdogan warned.
The Foreign Ministry also sent a note to the Iraqi government "reminding them of their responsibilities on the subject of the fight against terror," government spokesman Cemil Cicek said.
"The source of the ethnic terrorism that is taking lives in Turkey is Iraq," Cicek said in a press conference following a Cabinet meeting, referring to Kurdish rebels who hide and train in northern Iraq.
Later in the day, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, an ethnic Kurd, called Erdogan to allay his concerns, saying he was saddened by the rising tensions with Turkey, the Anatolia news agency said.
Last week, the Iraqi government decided to implement a constitutional requirement to determine the status of Kirkuk -- which is disputed among several different ethnic groups -- by the end of the year. Some in Turkey have hinted at military action to prevent the Kurds from gaining control of Kirkuk.
Barzani's remarks were front-page news and angered many in Turkey, with opposition parties criticizing the government for not responding harshly to the Kurdish leader's threat.
Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul called Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Saturday to discuss Barzani's remarks, the Anatolia news agency reported.