The Turkish military dispatched about 10,000 troops to the border with northern Iraq yesterday as part of its largest offensive against Kurdish militants for three years.
Turkish television reported last night that most of the troops, part of 22 battalions, had crossed into the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, after massing at five different border points. The offensive comes a day after militants of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) killed 24 Turkish soldiers and wounded 18 in simultaneous attacks near the border. The attacks were the worst single loss of life for the army since 1993.
It was Turkey's largest such offensive since February 2008, when thousands of ground forces staged a weeklong offensive into Iraq on snow-covered mountains.
The military said the soldiers in the current operation are commandos, special forces and paramilitary special forces – making it an elite force trained in guerrilla warfare. They are being reinforced by F-16 and F-4 warplanes, Super Cobra helicopter gunships and surveillance drones.
"Our goal is to achieve results with this operation," the Turkish Prime Minster, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, told a nationally televised news conference. "The military is determinedly carrying out this [operation], both from the air and the ground."
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.
Mr Erdogan vowed this week to destroy the PKK: "We will combat terror on one front and, on another front, we will continue our path to destroy the grounds that terror manipulates."
Mr Erdogan said yesterday that Turkey is seeking cooperation with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Northern Iraq, which is largely autonomous of Baghdad. Nechirvan Barzani, a former prime minister of the KRG, arrived in Ankara to express solidarity with Turkey against the PKK.
The Iraqi Foreign Ministry also issued a statement condemning the PKK. It said in a statement: "The Iraqi government condemns the PKK's terrorist acts... and confirms again that Iraq will not be a shelter and harbour any foreign terrorist armed groups." However, analysts said the chances of the new offensive destroying the PKK were slim.
"We've seen this before," said Jareth Genkins, an Istanbul-based security analyst. Previous Turkish military incursions into the Northern Iraq had been short-lived, with the rebels retreating higher into the remote Qandil Mountains where they are based.
"The timing of this is seasonal, this time of year they like to make a big splash," he said. "[The PKK] withdraw militants from Turkey during the winter. Some stay, but they are effectively on their own."