updated 5/10/2008 3:44:51 AM ET 2008-05-10T07:44:51

Airstrikes in southeast Turkey left 19 Kurdish rebels dead in an attack the Turkish military said was retaliation for a rebel raid on a military outpost a day earlier.

The operation was a response to an attack late Friday on a military outpost in Hakkari province, the military said in a statement posted on its Web site. Hakkari is where the borders of Turkey, Iran and Iraq meet.

The military also claimed in the same statement that it had dealt a major blow to the rebels during a cross-border air raid deep into northern Iraq earlier this month.

The rebels immediately denied the military's claims.

That attack forced one rebel leader, Cemil Bayik, to seek refuge in a neighboring country with a number of his followers. Another rebel leader, Bahoz Erdal, was forced to leave a mountain haven for another base closer to the Turkish border.

A large number of rebels has also laid down arms and found refuge in areas inhabited by local Iraqi Kurds, as a result of the air operation on Mount Qandil in Iraq on May 1-2, the military also claimed. The rebel leadership is believed to be hiding in the Qandil region — about 60 miles from the Turkish border.

In an other claim, the military said Bayik had engaged in fighting with the forces of the country where he had sought refuge and said there was no information on his situation. It did not say if the country was Iran, where Iranian Kurdish rebels are fighting government forces.

Firat, a pro-Kurdish news agency based in Europe, quoted another rebel leader, Zubeyir Aydar, as saying the rebel commanders "were on top of their duties."

Aydar said the military had suffered a major blow during the attack on the military outpost in Hakkari, and was making the false statements in part to disguise the defeat. He accused the military of engaging in a psychological warfare to try and demoralize rebel supporters.

The rebels belong to the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which has fought for self-rule in Turkey's southeast since 1984. The fighting has killed tens of thousands of people since then.

The group maintains bases in the north of neighboring Iraq, which it uses as a launch pad for attacks against targets inside Turkey.

The United States which like Turkey considers to be a terrorist group, has been providing intelligence to help the Turkish military fight the rebels.

Turkey has launched several aerial attacks this year and one major ground operation against rebel bases across the border with Iraq in February. Since then, clashes between rebels and Turkish troops have erupted along Turkey's border with Iraq.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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