Thousands of Turkish troops have crossed into northern Iraq and thousands more are at the border ready to join them in their hunt for Kurdish PKK guerrillas, a senior military source said today.
Turkey's military said the land offensive - the first major incursion in a decade - had fighter aircraft in support, and Turkish television reported that 10,000 troops had entered Iraq.
"The Turkish Armed Forces, which attach great importance to Iraq's territorial integrity and stability, will return home in the shortest time possible after its goals have been achieved," the General Staff said in a statement posted on its website.
The military source based in southeast Turkey told Reuters: "Thousands of troops have crossed the border and thousands more are waiting at the border to join them if necessary."
The US military said it was aware that Turkish forces had launched an offensive into northern Iraq against members of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), considered a terrorist group by Ankara, the United States and the European Union.
Rear Admiral Gregory Smith, a US military spokesman in Baghdad, said the operation was understood to be of "limited duration" and aimed at PKK fighters in the largely autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq.
"Turkey has given its assurances that it will do everything possible to avoid collateral damage to innocent citizens or Kurdish infrastructure," Smith said in a statement.
Nato member Turkey says it has the right under international law to hit Turkish PKK rebels who shelter in northern Iraq and have mounted attacks inside Turkey that have killed scores of troops. Turkey says some 3,000 PKK rebels are based in Iraq.
Turkey's military said the cross-border offensive was launched at 7pm on Thursday.
Turkish media said troops, backed by warplanes and Cobra attack helicopters, had moved six miles inside Iraq. Television footage showed dozens of tanks moving at high speed along the Iraqi-Turkish border.
A US State Department official said the land incursion was "not the greatest news".
"A land operation is a whole new level," Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza told reporters in Brussels.
He said Washington had been cooperating fully with ally Turkey in providing intelligence on PKK positions in northern Iraq since last November to enable the Turkish air force to make pinpoint attacks minimising civilian casualties.
The EU and the United States have in the past raised concerns that a major offensive could destabilise the region, though they have not criticised recent small cross-border raids.
In Baghdad, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said his government was not aware of any Turkish ground offensive.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki called on his Turkish counterpart last night to respect Iraq's borders after renewed shelling. President Jalal Talabani accepted an invitation from Turkish President Abdullah Gul to visit Turkey.
Iraq has repeatedly called for a diplomatic solution to the PKK problem but Turkey's government is under domestic pressure to take military action against the rebels.
Turkey's military said the PKK was the target of the ground offensive and vowed to act with restraint towards local groups.
"Turkish troops will stay in the region as long as the conditions dictate this. It will be very difficult for the PKK to re-base itself in northern Iraq," Turkey's former counter-terrorism chief, retired General Edip Baser, told NTV.
Ankara blames the PKK for the deaths of nearly 40,000 people since it began an armed struggle for a Kurdish homeland in southeast Turkey in 1984.Reuse content