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Turkey: 35 Kurdish rebels killed in Iraq

Two Turkish soldiers and at least 35 Kurdish rebels were killed Saturday in northern Iraq as thousands of Turkish troops crossed into the region to hunt down Kurdish rebels, the Turkish military said.
Turkish soldiers patrol to secure an operation path in Senoba, Sirnak, at the Iraq-Turkey border on Saturday.Burhan Ozbilici / AP
/ Source: news services

Turkish warplanes, helicopters and artillery bombed suspected hideouts of Kurdish rebels in remote, mountainous terrain of northern Iraq Saturday.

The Turkish military said at least 35 Kurdish rebels and two Turkish soldiers died in the fighting. A total of seven soldiers and at least 79 rebels have been killed in Iraq since Turkey launched a ground incursion late Thursday, according to the military. The rebel Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, claimed it had killed 15 Turkish troops.

The incursion is the first confirmed Turkish military ground operation in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003. Iraq's government criticized the offensive on Saturday, saying military force will not solve the Kurdish problem.

"We know the threats that Turkey is facing but military operations will not solve the PKK problem. Turkey has resorted to military options, but this never resulted in a good thing," Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said.

The rebels are fighting for autonomy in predominantly Kurdish southeastern Turkey and have carried out attacks on Turkish targets from bases in the semiautonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq. The conflict started in 1984 and has claimed as many as 40,000 lives.

The recent advance was the first confirmed Turkish military ground operation in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003. Turkey's army is believed to have carried out unacknowledged "hot pursuits" in recent years, with small groups of troops staying in Iraq for as little as a few hours or a day.

Kurdish president's warning
Iraq's Kurdish President Massoud Barzani warned that the regional government would not stand by if the Turks struck civilians.

"The regional government of Kurdistan will not be a part of the conflict between the Turkish government and the PKK fighters. But at the same time, we stress that if the Turkish military targets any Kurdish civilian citizens or any civilian structures, then we will order a large-scale resistance," Barzani said.

Tariq Jawhar, a spokesman for the National Assembly of Kurdistan, a regional body, called on the U.S. and Iraqi leadership to intervene and stop the Turkish operations.

"We want the Iraqi federal government and the U.S. to ... work hard to stop this aggression and to seek peaceful negotiation to solve the problem," he said. "Such military operations are considered a clear violation of the federal Iraqi territory."

The United States urged Turkey on Friday to bring its current military operations in Iraq to an end. "We have strongly urged the Turkish government to bring any ongoing operations to a swift conclusion," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said. 

Suspected rebel targets blasted
The offensive started late Thursday after aircraft and artillery blasted suspected rebel targets. It marked a dramatic escalation in Turkey's fight with the PKK, even though Turkish officials described the operation as limited.

The PKK is considered a terrorist group by the United States and European Union as well as Turkey.

The size and scope of the assault has been difficult to confirm, with media reports saying as many as 10,000 Turkish soldiers could be involved.

Al-Dabbagh said less than 1,000 Turkish troops had crossed into Iraq. A military officer of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq has said on condition of anonymity that several hundred Turkish soldiers had crossed the border.

Turkish commanders have assured Iraq that the "operation will be a limited one and it will not violate certain standards that they have set," the Iraqi spokesman said, noting that Iraq's president and prime minister had spoken to Turkish officials.

During Saddam's rule
Turkey staged about two-dozen attacks in Iraq during the rule of Saddam, who conducted brutal campaigns against Iraqi Kurds.

Some Turkish offensives, including several in the late 1990s, involved tens of thousands of soldiers. Results were mixed, however, with rebels suffering combat losses and regrouping after Turkish forces withdrew.

Iraq's Oil Ministry, meanwhile, ruled out halting oil exports through Turkey because of the military operations. A pipeline that runs into Turkey was often halted in past years due to sabotage, but is now pumping more than 300,000 barrels per day.

"Turkish military operations will not affect pumping oil through this pipeline as both Iraqi and Turkish governments are keen not to halt it," Assem Jihad told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.