Turkish forces pressed ahead with ground operations against Kurdish rebels in Iraq on Saturday after the military reported that five troops and several dozen rebels had been killed in the cross-border fighting.
The US-backed Iraqi government said Turkey had assured it that the operation, Ankara’s first major ground incursion against Kurdish rebel bases in nearly a decade, would target only rebels who have staged hit-and-run attacks on Turkish targets from hideouts in northern Iraq.
A Turkish soldier was killed and another was wounded in a landmine blast on Saturday in the Turkish province of Bingo, nearly 300 kilometres from the border, local media said.
Two buses and five vans on Saturday ferried soldiers toward the Turkish border town of Cukurca, which lies north of the combat area, Dogan news agency reported. Vehicles used to carry ammunition were seen returning from the border area.
Two Turkish warplanes were seen flying toward Cukurca, Dogan said, but it was unclear whether they were on a bombing mission.
Further west, soldiers in Besta swept roads for possible landmines. Dozens of troops carrying assault rifles, light mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and sleeping mats patrolled near mountains with snow-covered peaks.
Supported by air power, Turkish troops crossed into northern Iraq late on Thursday in an offensive that marked a dramatic escalation in Turkey’s fight with the rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, even though Turkish officials described the operation as limited.
The Turkish military said five troops and 24 Kurdish rebels were killed in clashes. At least 20 more rebels were killed by artillery and helicopter gunships, it said. Artillery units positioned near Cukurca could be heard firing shells across the border on Friday evening, Dogan agency reported. The Iraqi government said Saturday that fewer than 1,000 Turkish troops had crossed the frontier. Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbaghsaid Turkish commanders had assured Iraq that the “operation will be a limited one and it will not violate certain standards that they have set.” Al-Dabbagh said Iraq’s president and prime minister had spoken to Turkish officials. “We know the threats that Turkey is facing but military operations will not solve the PKK problem. Turkey has resorted to military options, but this never resulted in a good thing,” al-Dabbagh said. He acknowledged that Turkey was “suffering from the terrorist PKK organisation.”
On Friday, a military officer of the US-led coalition in Iraq said on condition of anonymity that several hundred Turkish soldiers had crossed the border. The coalition has satellites as well as drones and other surveillance aircraft at its disposal.
Sky-Turk television said about 2,000 Turkish soldiers were in Iraq, operating against rebel camps about 3-4 kilometres in from the border. NTV television said a total of 10,000 soldiers were inside Iraq in an operation that had extended 10kilometers past the frontier. The activity was reportedly occurring about 100 kilometres east of Cizre, a major town near the border with Iraq. It was not possible to confirm independently the size or scope of the attack on the PKK, which is considered a terrorist group by the United States and European Union.
CNN-Turk television, citing Turkish security officials, said the operation could last two weeks.
The advance was the first confirmed Turkish military ground operation in Iraq since the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The PKK militants are fighting for autonomy in predominantly Kurdish south-eastern Turkey and have carried out attacks on Turkish targets from bases in the semiautonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq. The conflict started in 1984 and has claimed as many as 40,000lives.