msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 10/19/2011 7:32:02 PM ET 2011-10-19T23:32:02

Turkey on Thursday mourned 24 young soldiers killed by Kurdish militants near Iraq in one of the deadliest attacks in years, as public outrage mounted and Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan faced pressure to act decisively against the rebels.

While Turkish troops backed by fighter jets and helicopter gunships pursued Kurdish rebels into Iraq and political leaders vowed to exact "great revenge", religious ceremonies for the dead soldiers were due to be held in the eastern city of Van in what was sure to be a national outpouring of grief and anger.

Underlying outrage at the attack by Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) rebels and the risk of a backlash against minority Kurds, Turkish flags flew over government buildings and homes in cities across the country and protesters gathered in Istanbul and the capital Ankara to chant slogans against the PKK.

While Turkey's incursion into Iraq appeared to be limited in scope — Turkish commandos were dropped by helicopters and other troops were in "hot pursuit" up to 5 miles across the Iraqi border — there was alarm at the prospect of a major Turkish offensive in northern Iraq.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan canceled a visit to Kazakhstan and held a nationally televised news conference to announce that Turkey had launched the operation. "We will never bow to any attack from inside or outside Turkey," he said.

The PKK, waging a 27-year-old war from bases inside Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region, said it lost five guerrillas in the raids, which President Barack Obama, Iraqi Kurdish leaders and Ankara's NATO and EU allies condemned as terrorism.

Wednesday's offensive began hours after the rebels, who are fighting for autonomy in Turkey's southeast, staged simultaneous attacks on military outposts and police stations near the border towns of Cukurca and Yuksekova.

The Interior Ministry first said 26 soldiers were killed and 22 wounded, but Erdogan corrected those figures to 24 dead and 18 wounded, without explaining the discrepancy. It was the deadliest Kurdish rebel attack against Turkey's military since the 1990s. Dogan news agency said about 200 Kurdish rebels were believed to have launched Wednesday's attacks.

Kurdish rebel group the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, said fighting was taking place in two separate areas close to the mountainous Iraqi-Turkish border. "We have been clashing with the Turkish forces in two areas since around 3 a.m. today," Dostdar Hamo, a spokesman for the rebel group in northern Iraq, told The Associated Press by telephone.

Speaking to Reuters by telephone from the Turkish town of Cukurca, Kurdish accountant Mehmet Tek, 39, said: "It wasn't possible to sleep last night due to heavy gunfire.

"After hearing the news about the attack last night, we were devastated. Politicians need to do something urgently."

Shopkeeper Hayati Inan, 41, also an ethnic Kurd, said: "We've seen military helicopters come and go all day since morning. These attacks, killings sadden us deeply. Enough is enough. We don't want to see any weeping mothers anymore."

In Baghdad, an Iraqi government spokesman was not immediately available for comment.

Turkey asked Iraq last week to move against rebel bases in northern Iraq, saying "its "patience is running out" in the face of rebel attacks directed at Turkey from Iraqi soil.

"No one should forget that those who make us suffer this pain will be made to suffer even stronger," Gul told reporters Wednesday. "They will see that the vengeance for these attacks will be immense and many times stronger."

'Martyrs never die!'
The Peace and Democracy Party, a pro-Kurdish party accused by authorities of links to the Kurdish rebels, urged both sides to end the fighting, saying peace is urgently needed.

But Turkish warplanes and artillery units, positioned just inside Turkey, struck at the Kurdish rebel bases across the border in response, NTV said.

The rebels have lately intensified their attacks in the country's Kurdish-dominated southeast, killing dozens of members of the country's security force and at least 18 civilians since mid-July.

On Tuesday, a roadside bomb blast killed five policemen and three civilians, including a 4-year-old girl. Wednesday's rebel attack sparked public outrage, with many people hanging red and white Turkish flags out of windows and balconies in Ankara, the Turkish capital.

A group of angry Turkish veterans of the 27-year-old Kurdish conflict attempted to storm the prime minister's office, shouting "Martyrs never die!"

The conflict has killed tens of thousands of people since 1984 as Kurdish politicians push for greater cultural and political rights for Kurds, who make up around 20 percent of Turkey's 74 million people. The Kurdish demands include the right to education in the mother tongue, but the Turkish government fears could deepen the country's ethnic divide.

The government has taken steps toward wider Kurdish-language education by allowing Kurdish-language institutes and private Kurdish courses as well as Kurdish television broadcasts. But it won't permit lower-level education in Kurdish.

The European Union, which Turkey is striving to join, has pushed the Turkish government to grant more rights to the Kurds. But EU countries also have urged Kurdish lawmakers to distance themselves from the PKK, which is considered a terrorist group by the United States and the EU.

"The United States strongly condemns this morning's outrageous terrorist attack against Turkey, one of our closest and strongest allies," Obama said in a statement released by the White House. "The United States will continue our strong cooperation with the Turkish government as it works to defeat the terrorist threat from the PKK and to bring peace, stability and prosperity to all the people of southeast Turkey."

'No place for this kind of violence'
The U.S. shares drone surveillance data with Turkey to aid its fight against the Kurdish rebels and is engaged in talks with Turkey for possible deployment of Predator drones on Turkish soil after U.S. forces leave Iraq, according to the Turkish government.

Britain condemned the attacks "in the strongest possible terms," and British leader David Cameron's office said he had written to the Turkish prime minister to express his sadness at the loss of life.

"My thoughts are with the family and friends of those you have lost," the British prime minister said. "There must be no place for this kind of violence and I condemn it in the strongest possible terms."

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen also criticized the Kurdish rebel violence.

"On behalf of NATO, I condemn in the strongest possible terms the recent attacks in southeastern Turkey, which killed and injured several Turkish soldiers, policemen and civilians, including a child," Rasmussen said in a statement.

Erdogan said Turkey is expecting "active cooperation" from the international community in its fight against the rebels.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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