Diyarbakir. Turkish forces crossed into Iraq on Thursday to strike at Kurdish rebels and warplanes pounded their bases in retaliation for the death of 24 soldiers, officials said.
“A large-scale land operation, backed by air strikes, has begun in five separate spots inside Turkey and across the border with 22 battalions,” the military general staff said in a statement posted on its Web site.
The 22 battalions comprise commando units as well as gendarmerie and special forces, it added, without specifying how many had entered Iraq. Analysts said the total troops deployed would be 10-15,000.
Air force jets kept up bombing raids overnight in response to Wednesday’s coordinated attacks by guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) on military posts, which caused the worst loss of life for the army since 1993, local security sources said.
Military activity at the air base in mainly Kurdish Diyarbakir province was very intensive throughout the night with F-16 jets taking off to target the PKK hideouts, they said.
According to press reports, between 200 and 250 Kurdish rebels entrenched in the mountains of northern Iraq crossed into Turkey late Tuesday to carry out raids which left 24 Turkish soldiers dead and 18 wounded.
Turkish aircraft immediately responded to the attacks. Commandos were dispatched in pursuit of the assailants and special units dropped by helicopter a few kilometers inside Iraqi territory on Wednesday.
A military ceremony was held on Thursday morning in Van, a city in eastern Turkey 150 kilometers north of Wednesday’s combat zone.
The coffins, draped with the red and white flag of Turkey, were loaded into military aircraft to be taken to their home towns for burial.
Thousands of people, many of them students, denounced terrorism Thursday and visited the mausoleum of Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in the capital Ankara.
“The martyrs do not die, the nation is not divided,” chanted the demonstrators waving Turkish flags.
In Istanbul, some 500 people including members of trade unions also staged a protest. Also carrying Turkish flags, they shouted “Turkey is Turkish and will remain so.”
President Abdullah Gul, who recently made a morale-boosting visit to border troops, vowed Turkey’s revenge for the attacks would be bitter.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised to fight the PKK but said the rebels’ actions would not change his government’s determination to resolve the Kurdish conflict.
Turkey’s parliament was due to discuss further measures in a closed doors session Thursday.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd, called his Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoglu, Wednesday to offer his condolences, NTV television reported.
Davutoglu told Zebari, who visited Ankara last week, it was not the time for condemnation but for taking concrete steps to stop the PKK violence, said NTV.
Baghdad in an official statement on Thursday pledged to cooperate with Ankara on security issues.
“The Iraqi government condemns this terrorist activity by the PKK, and expresses its sympathy for the families of the Turkish soldiers,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.
It continued: “(Iraq) is committed to collaborate with the Turkish government on security issues to prevent a repeat of such actions.”
Erdogan also had a telephone conversation with Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region, media reported.
Nechirvan Barzani, a former prime minister of the Kurdish regional government, paid a surprise visit to Ankara late Wednesday.
“We strongly condemn this attack,” he told reporters Thursday after meeting with Davutoglu.
“Such attacks are in the interest of neither the Turks nor the Kurds,” he said.
Massoud Barzani might visit Turkey soon, he added, without providing an exact date.
Ankara has repeatedly urged the Iraqi government not to allow its territory to be used as a springboard by the PKK for attacks on Turkey.
Last week, Zebari said the problem could be resolved in a way that would not poison Turkish-Iraqi relations.
Clashes between the PKK and the army have escalated since the summer.
Five police and four civilians were killed in a landmine explosion in the southeast on Tuesday.
The PKK, listed as a terrorist organisation by Turkey and much of the international community, took up arms in Kurdish-majority southeastern Turkey in 1984, sparking a conflict that has claimed about 45,000 lives.