Turkey sent hundreds of elite troops into northern Iraq on Wednesday to chase Kurdish guerrillas in an operation that could increase tensions with the semiautonomous Kurdish region.
The soldiers killed four rebels escaping after a failed attack on a Turkish unit near the border, the Turkish military said. It did not report any of its own casualties. The soldiers, supported by Turkish warplanes, were remaining in northern Iraq, the military said. It did not say when the troops would withdraw.
The military has repeatedly staged air and ground assaults against Kurdish rebel bases in northern Iraq. The last major incursion was in February 2008, when thousands of ground forces staged a weeklong offensive into Iraq.
Iraqi Kurds have been cooperating with Turkey in its fight against the rebels, sharing intelligence on the guerrillas movements and positions. However, the incursion could trigger protests from Baghdad and the semiautonomous Iraqi Kurdish region, especially if it is a prolonged one.
The military said on its website that three commando companies and one special forces battalion penetrated 2 miles (3 kilometers) into Iraq.
Military: Targets hit
Turkish warplanes also pounded Kurdish rebel positions and mortar and anti-aircraft units deeper inside Iraqi territory on Wednesday, the military said.
The offensive was ordered after the rebels attempted an unsuccessful attack on troops near the Turkish border town of Uludere, the military said.
"The air operation was monitored from the command headquarters and it was noted that the targets were successfully hit," the military said.
The Turkish military estimates around 4,000 rebels of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, are based just across the border in Iraq and that about 2,500 operate inside Turkey.
Last month, Turkey killed at least 19 Kurdish rebels in an airstrike on rebel hideouts in northern Iraq.
The PKK has freely operated in northern Iraq, a semiautonomous Iraqi Kurdish entity since the Gulf War, benefiting from a power vacuum for decades.
The last ground offensive in 2008 yielded mixed results, with many guerrillas making a comeback to bases along the border after the Turkish units withdrew. The incursion also worried the region's Iraqi Kurds who feared that a prolonged Turkish military presence could destabilize the relatively safer Iraqi territory.
Legacy of coordinated attacks
Turkey occasionally coordinates attacks with Iran on Kurdish rebel bases on Mount Qandil, which sits on the Iranian-Iraqi border and from where a sub-rebel group stages hit-and-run attacks on Iranian targets in a similar war for Kurdish rights in Iran.
Syria long harbored the rebels but forced guerrilla leader Abdullah Ocalan to leave the country after Turkey threatened war in late 1998, eventually leading to the capture of the rebel chief on Feb. 15. 1999.
Earlier this month, Turkey offered greater economic cooperation with Iraqi Kurds, pressuring the region's president, Massoud Barzani, to jointly combat Turkish Kurdish rebel hideouts in northern Iraq that the rebels have used as a springboard for attacks.
Turkey also wants Iraqi Kurds to shut down the Makhmur refugee camp, which houses an estimated 10,000-11,000 Turkish Kurds who fled to Iraq in the early 1990s during fighting between Turkish troops and Kurdish rebels. Turkish authorities accuse Kurdish guerrillas of indoctrinating children in the camp to become rebels.
A Kurdish interior ministry official, however, said there were no plans to close the Makhmur camp. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak to media.