Turkish soldiers die in Kurd battle

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The Independent Online

Thousands of Turkish soldiers fought Kurdish separatists yesterday in two large operations, military sources said, a day after Turkish warplanes launched air strikes on rebel targets in northern Iraq.

Two soldiers were killed in Bingol, southeast Turkey, in an operation involving 7,000 to 8,000 soldiers.

Further south in the provinces of Sirnak and Hakkari, which border Iraq, at least 15,000 soldiers were fighting Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) guerrillas, the sources said.

Turkey has stepped up operations against PKK inside Turkey and, since the end of a February land offensive against guerrillas based in northern Iraq, has launched a series of air strikes against PKK targets in the neighbouring country.

On Friday night and early Saturday the armed forces launched their second air operation on northern Iraq in a week, the biggest round of air strikes this year, according to military sources.

The strikes did not necessarily herald another land incursion like the February offensive, analysts said. That had prompted concern in Washington about further regional instability and was watched closely on financial markets.

"I don't think there will be a major land operation, maybe small 'hot pursuit' operations," said columnist and political analyst Professor Dogu Ergil. "That would be the last option ... they tried a land operation and it didn't prove too productive."

The February incursion, during which the army said it killed 240 guerrillas and lost 27 of its own men, lasted eight days in harsh winter conditions. The head of the armed forces said after the withdrawal that further land operations could follow.

Yesterday's deaths add to a toll of eight security personnel killed in the southeast in the last week alone, according to information from the General Staff.

The armed forces tend to step up operations in the spring when the snow melts, making it easier to move around the mountainous region. The General Staff says it targets guerrillas trying to cross back over the border into Turkey.

Before the ground operation in February, Turkey launched a series of air strikes on targets in northern Iraq in December.

Ankara blames the PKK for 40,000 deaths since 1984 when the group took up arms to try to establish an ethnic homeland in southeast Turkey. Like the United States and the European Union, it considers the group a terrorist organisation.

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