Turkey launches raid into Iraq after attack by Kurdish rebels

Cross-border incursion follows clashes with PKK fighters that left 24 soldiers dead

The Turkish government launched its largest cross-border incursion into northern Iraq in three years yesterday, following deadly clashes with Kurdish rebels that left 24 security forces dead and 18 wounded.

The advance followed weeks of activity on the border, where Turkish troops have been massing in preparation for a large cross-border raid that some experts say is supposed to wipe out the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). It came after some 200 of the rebels launched coordinated attacks on military outposts and police stations along the border with Iraq in the early hours of yesterday morning.

After the initial rebel attack, 600 Turkish mountain commandos backed by helicopter gunships pursued the PKK fighters several kilometres across the border back into northern Iraq, where the rebels have camps hidden in the remote Qandil Mountains. At least 24 rebels were killed in the fighting, according to Turkish media. A PKK affiliated website said at least five fighters died.

Responding to the PKK attacks, the Turkish President, Abdullah Gul, who visited the border area only this past weekend, vowed to "finish" the rebels, saying "the vengeance for these attacks will be great".

"We will never bow to any attack from inside or outside Turkey," the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said. The US and Nato both issued statements supporting the action. There was no comment in Baghdad, after a warning from the Turkish authorities last week that their "patience was running out" and that Iraq should deal with the rebel bases near to the border at once.

The PKK has been fighting a 30-year war for Kurdish autonomy in southeast Turkey. At least 45,000 people have been killed in the conflict. The group is listed as a terrorist organisation by the European Union and United States.

In recent months, the Turkish government has arrested thousands of Kurds across the country, including some elected officials, often on questionable evidence. After a lull the PKK resumed attacks, claiming the Turkish government has backed away from an agreement offered by the group's leader, Abdullah Ocalan, who has been imprisoned by Turkey since 1999.

Others, however, felt that the attacks were related to the ongoing unrest across the region. "Whoever supports terror secretly or openly, they all should know that Turkey will be following them and they'll pay for that," said Erdogan, who cancelled a trip to Kazakhstan after the attack.

"The latest attack clearly proves that PKK became a subcontractor of some," he said, implying the group was being controlled by an unnamed regional actor.

In the past weeks, Turkey has broken with its traditional allies Iran and Syria. Following popular uprisings in Syria and a repressive crackdown by the Assad regime, Turkey sided with its Nato allies and even allowed the Syrian opposition to organise on its soil.

This has angered Iran and Syria, who have in the past been thought to have carried out talks with the PKK.