ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey’s military said Friday it killed as many as 120 Kurdish rebels in an air raid on rebel hideouts in northern Iraq last month and a daylong incursion by elite commandos into Iraq this week.
Kurdish rebels have dramatically stepped up attacks in Turkey in recent months in an escalation that poses a dire threat to a remarkable attempt at ending one of the world’s longest guerrilla wars. The Turkish military responded to the rebels by sending its warplanes across the Iraqi border to bomb Kurdish rebel positions after acquiring intelligence, apparently from the United States and recently purchased drones from Israel.
The rebels have long used northern Iraq as a springboard for hit-and-run attacks on Turkish targets in a campaign for autonomy in Turkey’s Kurdish-dominated southeast. Several past Turkish air raids and incursions have failed to stop rebel infiltration through the mountainous border.
Maj. Gen. Fahri Kir, the head of the military’s internal security operations, said another 30 Kurdish rebels were killed inside Turkey since March in anti-rebel operations. He said the Turkish losses were 43 in the same period. It was not possible to independently verify the figures, which the military says are based on intelligence reports, including interception of radio communication between the rebels of the Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK.
“We anticipate (PKK attacks) to continue incrementally,” Kir told a news conference at the military headquarters.
The PKK declared an expanded war on June 1, a day after imprisoned Kurdish rebel chief Abdullah Ocalan said in a message communicated by his lawyers from the prison island of Imrali, near Istanbul, that his calls for rebel dialogue with Turkey had been ignored, so he was abandoning them and giving his consent to the rebel command in northern Iraq to determine the course of action.
Kir said the PKK aims to expand its attacks throughout Turkey in an attempt to create “fear and chaos.” The escalation of violence followed the major air assault on May 20 on rebel positions in Hakurk region of the northern Iraq in which several warplanes bombed a large area to kill about 100 rebels.
It was the largest air assault on the rebels since a 2008 ground operation into Iraq that saw many guerrillas return to bases along the border after Turkish units withdrew. The Turkish military says around 4,000 rebels are based just across the border in Iraq and that about 2,500 operate inside Turkey.
Hundreds of elite commandos crossed into Iraq for a daylong operation to hunt down a group of rebels who were escaping after an attack near the border town of Uludere. Kir said the commandos, who returned to their bases on the same day, killed five rebels but later intelligence reports suggested that the rebel casualties, also in a co-ordinated air strike, were about 20.
Kir said 545 rebels were believed to have defected from PKK last year as a result of Turkish operations and difficult living conditions on the mountains. He put the number of PKK deserters this year at 148.
Maj. Gen. Ferit Guler, the secretary-general of the Turkish military, stressed on Friday that while the military chased Kurdish guerrillas, “the state should use economic, socio-cultural and propaganda measures in co-ordination at the international level for an effective struggle against terrorism.”
Turkey has waged a harsh crackdown during the grinding 26-year insurgency by the Marxist group PKK, which has been labeled a terrorist organization by the West for killing civilians in urban bombings and arson attacks and slaying government teachers, engineers and clergymen.
The government, however, has tried to distinguish its Kurdish citizens from those who support the rebel group and extended greater cultural rights to the Kurds such as broadcasts in Kurdish language on television, to try to win their hearts.
Turkey, however, rejects calls from the Kurdish rebels and politicians to allow education in schools in Kurdish. The language is also barred in parliament and other official settings on the grounds that its use would divide the country along ethnic lines.
The conflict has killed as many as 40,000 people and allegations of Turkish brutality and restrictions of Kurdish rights have stained the country’s human rights record and hampered its bid to join the European Union. The military offensive has also cost hundreds of millions of dollars in defence spending and slowed construction of schools, hospitals and irrigation projects.
Associated Press Writer Suzan Fraser in Ankara contributed to this report.