The Turkish military said Saturday it attacked 50 to 60 Kurdish rebels inside Iraqi territory, inflicting “significant losses” a day after the Turkish cabinet authorized a cross-border operation.
There were conflicting reports on whether Turkish troops had crossed into Iraq for the attack.
Reuters, quoting a military official, said special forces went into Iraq and carried out an “intense intervention” against Kurdish rebels, though the action did not appear to be a long-awaited major operation by NATO member Turkey to destroy rebel bases.
The military official said around 100 troops were sent into northern Iraq to hit rebels of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. The army also sent between four and six helicopters to bomb a camp used by the PKK.
The NTV news channel said the army used helicopters and artillery in a cross-border operation for the first time in many years. The military official said the special forces had returned to Turkish territory.
A senior U.S. military official told NBC News that the U.S. had seen no evidence of an Iraq incursion despite public claims coming out of Turkey.
"It appears there may have been some cross-border artillery," attacks as there have been in the past, "but it doesn't appear any Turkish forces crossed the border," the official said, also questioning Turkish claims of "heavy casualties" against the PKK.
Military: Attack inside Iraqi borders
The Turkish military in a statement said the attack occurred “inside Iraqi borders,” southeast of the Turkish town of Cukurca in Hakkari province. Hakkari, where rebels are active, is in the southeast corner of Turkey and shares a border with Iran as well as Iraq. It was not clear from the statement whether the Turks fired from the Turkish or Iraqi side of the border.
Firat, a pro-Kurdish news agency, reported that Turkish army units shelled the Dola Mir and Dola Merge areas in northern Iraq on Saturday. A Firat reporter said the areas are across the border from Cukurca.
“No pinpoint operation or military movement was observed after the shelling that lasted nearly two hours,” Firat said, citing Iraqi Kurdish officials.
Earlier, a spokesman for Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani said there had been no incursion by Turkish troops into the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region of northern Iraq.
Turkish forces have periodically shelled suspected rebel positions across the Iraqi border, and have sometimes carried out “hot pursuits” — limited raids on the Iraqi side that sometimes last only a few hours.
“There was an intensified operation against the mentioned terrorists using fire support vehicles,” the Turkish military statement on the Web site said. “The terrorist group suffered significant losses as a result of the operation,” it added. “If necessary, there will be other operations in the region using other means.”
Cross-border offensive approved
The attack came a day after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the government had authorized the military to launch a cross-border offensive against Kurdish rebels based in northern Iraq at any time.
Erdogan’s announcement followed communication in recent weeks between the military and the government concerning the scope of a possible operation against the PKK.
A top general had said the military was awaiting a government directive on how to proceed against the group, which has been fighting the Turkish state since 1984.
Parliament voted Oct. 17 in favor of authorizing the government to order a cross-border operation against the PKK, which seeks autonomy for the Kurdish minority in southeastern Turkey.
Turkey massed tens of thousands of Turkish troops along the border with Iraq amid a series of attacks by Kurdish insurgents. But some military officials have said Turkey is more likely to stage airstrikes and raids by special forces instead of a large-scale occupation of Iraqi territory that could carry greater military and political risks.
The United States and Iraq have urged Turkey to avoid a major operation against PKK bases in northern Iraq, fearing such an operation would destabilize what has been the calmest region in the country. In a Nov. 5 meeting with Erdogan, President Bush promised to share intelligence with the Turkish government on the PKK.
The Turkish military did not say whether it conducted Saturday’s operation with American help.