Turkey strikes Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq

Airstrikes have hit 88 rebel targets in Iraq; Kurdish PKK militants say no casualties; operations set to continue, Iraq critical.

Turkish military photo of 'terrorist' Kurd target 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Turkish military photo of 'terrorist' Kurd target 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
DIYARBAKIR, Turkey - Turkish warplanes and artillery pounded Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq for a second night, hours after the rebels mounted attacks on security forces in southeastern Turkey.
The Turkish raids, the first against rebels holed up in the mountains of northern Iraq in more than a year, mark a stark escalation of the 27-year-old conflict after the collapse of efforts towards a negotiated settlement.
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Late on Friday a Reuters witness said 10 warplanes took off from an airbase in southeastern Turkey in what appeared to herald a third night of strikes against Kurdish guerrillas.
There was no immediate confirmation by the Turkish military, which earlier said warplanes had attacked 28 Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) targets on Thursday in the areas of Qandil mountain, Hakurk, Avasin-Basyan and Zap.
"In coordination with the air operation, intense artillery fire was directed at 96 targets identified in the same areas," the General Staff said in a statement. "Activities in the fight against terrorism will continue decisively at home and abroad."
The military released cockpit footage showing blasts and billowing smoke as laser-guided missiles slammed into targets described as PKK shelters, stores and anti-aircraft sites during raids which drew criticism from Baghdad.
Iraqi Deputy Foreign Minister Labeed Abbawi condemned the strikes, telling Reuters: "Our position is clear. We reject violations and overstepping of borders. This issue cannot be resolved through military action."
"Iraq should have been informed about this to find other ways to resolve this escalation," he said.
Turkey launched the attacks on rebels in response to a spate of rebel attacks in recent months and an ambush on Wednesday that killed nine servicemen. The PKK in Iraq said none of its people were hurt.
"There were no PKK casualties in the shelling that continued last night," PKK spokesman Roj Welat told Reuters.
On Thursday night the PKK, designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union, carried out simultaneous attacks in Turkey's southeastern Siirt province.
Rebels besieged a paramilitary gendarmerie post in Eruh, with rocket launchers and rifles, killing two officers and wounding four soldiers. Two PKK fighters were killed in subsequent clashes, security sources said.
In the nearby district of Pervari, rebels wounded four civilians during similar attacks on security installations.
The guerrillas also clashed with troops in eastern Tunceli province and one PKK militant was killed, sources said.
Further military action is expected
Some 40 Turkish security personnel have been killed in clashes in the last month and further air action was likely for as long as fighting on the ground continues.
"I think those deciding on the air operations will sustain them intermittently for as long as appropriate opportunities emerge," Nihat Ali Ozcan, a security analyst at the Ankara-based think tank TEPAV, told Reuters.
"At times like this governments have to manage not just terrorism but their own public opinion. Hence air operations, more than harming the PKK militarily, serve the government in managing public opinion," Ozcan said.
It was not clear whether the air assaults might be a prelude to an incursion by land forces, which Turkey has sent into northern Iraq in the past to tackle PKK fighters.
World diplomatic attention has been focused on unrest in Turkey's neighbor Syria and in Libya, where rebels are closing on leader Muammar Gaddafi's stronghold in Tripoli. But a major Turkish incursion in northern Iraq could inflame ethnic tensions.
Ozcan said a short ground operation with limited targets was feasible if the government could convince the United States and the Kurdish administration in northern Iraq on the issue, but such a move was seen as unlikely.
The Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government, which has enjoyed semi-autonomy from the central Iraqi government since 1991, said the military attacks undermined its sovereignty.
"Problems cannot be resolved by resorting to force and military action, but only through dialogue and negotiations," Kawa Mahmoud, a Kurdistan government spokesman, said in a statement on the KRG website.
The Kurdish conflict also raises domestic passions in Turkey. Further legal action could be taken against Kurdish politicians, currently boycotting parliament and accused of close links to the PKK.
The pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) called for a bilateral ceasefire by the PKK and state and said the government would be to blame for further violence if it failed to advance reforms sought by the 12-million-strong Kurdish minority.
"[Turkish] Prime Minister (Tayyip) Erdogan will be personally responsible for each and every death from this moment on, if the government fails to take up this agenda despite the BDP's calls for a peaceful solution," senior BDP deputy Selahattin Demirtas told a news conference in Istanbul.
More than 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict since the PKK took up arms for Kurdish self-rule in 1984.