ISTANBUL, Turkey (AP) – Turkish troops launched a ground incursion across the border into Iraq in pursuit of separatist Kurdish rebels, the military said Friday, an act that dramatically escalates Turkey’s conflict with the militants.
It is the first confirmed Turkish military ground operation in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, and it raised concerns that it could trigger a wider conflict with the U.S.-backed Iraqi Kurds despite Turkish assurances that its only target was the PKK rebel group.
The PKK militants are fighting for autonomy in southeast Turkey and have carried out attacks on Turkish targets from bases in a semiautonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq.
The ground operation started after Turkish warplanes and artillery bombed suspected rebel targets on Thursday, the military said on its Web site. The incursion was backed by the Air Force, the statement said.
A military officer of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq said on condition of anonymity that several hundred Turkish troops had crossed the border. Turkish media reports cited larger numbers, from about 3,000 to as high as 10,000.
Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said he called his Iraqi counterpart Nouri al-Maliki on Thursday night to inform him about the operation before it began. Erdogan said he later briefed U.S. President George W. Bush in a telephone call.
“The Turkish Armed Forces will return after they finish their job,” Erdogan said in a televised speech. “The goal of the operation and of operations that will be conducted is just and only PKK camps located in the north of Iraq.”
Turkey has conducted air raids against the PKK guerrillas in northern Iraq since December, with the help of U.S. intelligence, and it has periodically carried out so-called “hot pursuits” in which small units sometimes spend only a few hours inside Iraq.
The announcement of a cross-border, ground incursion of a type that Turkey carried out before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a major development in its conflict with the Kurdish rebels, which started in 1984 and has claimed as many as 40,000 lives.
Turkey staged about two-dozen incursions in Iraq during the rule of Saddam Hussein, who conducted brutal campaigns against his country’s Kurdish population. Some Turkish offensives involved tens of thousands of troops. Results were mixed; rebels suffered blows to their ranks and supplies but regrouped after the bulk of the Turkish forces had left.
PKK spokesman Ahmad Danas said two Turkish troops were killed and eight wounded in clashes along the 385-kilometer (240-mile) border, but there was no comment from the Turkish military and no way to confirm the claim independently.
“The Turkish Armed Forces, which values Iraq’s territorial integrity and its stability, will return as soon as planned goals are achieved,” the military said. “The executed operation will prevent the region from being a permanent and safe base for the terrorists and will contribute to Iraq’s stability and internal peace.”
Private NTV television said troops had penetrated 10 kilometers (six miles) into Iraq, though some reports said that not all the troops had been deployed. The operation was reportedly concentrated in the Hakurk region, south of the Turkish border town of Cukurca.
The state-run Anatolia agency reported that warplanes were seen taking off from the air base in Diyarbakir in southeast Turkey. It said planes and helicopters were conducting reconnaissance flights over the border region, and that military units were deployed at the border to prevent rebel infiltration.
Dogan News Agency reported that the Habur border crossing, a major conduit for trade between Iraq and Turkey, was closed to vehicle traffic.
CNN-Turk television, however, quoted Deputy Prime Minister Hayati Yazici as saying the border gate was not closed but that priority was being given to Turkish military vehicles. Trucks routinely ferry supplies bound for U.S. military bases in Iraq through the Habur crossing. Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, a U.S. spokesman in Iraq, said the military had received assurances from its NATO ally Turkey that it would do everything possible to avoid “collateral damage” to innocent civilians or infrastructure.
“Multi-National Forces-Iraq is aware Turkish ground forces have entered into northern Iraq, for what we understand is an operation of limited duration to specifically target PKK terrorists in that region,” Smith said in a statement.
“The United States continues to support Turkey’s right to defend itself from the terrorist activities of the PKK and has encouraged Turkey to use all available means, to include diplomacy and close coordination with the Government of Iraq to ultimately resolve this issue,” he added.
The U.S. and the European Union consider the PKK a terrorist organization.
Matthew Bryza, U.S. deputy assistant secretary for southeastern Europe, cited the importance of a Nov. 5 meeting in which President Bush promised Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that Washington would share intelligence on the PKK.
“The land operation is a whole new level,” Bryza said in Belgium. “What I can say is that what we’ve been doing until now has been working quite well.” The European Commission appealed to Turkey to act with restraint.
“Turkey should refrain from taking any disproportionate military action and respect human rights and the rule of law,” said Commission spokeswoman Krisztina Nagy. “The EU understands Turkey’s need to protect its population from terrorism,” she said. “We encourage Turkey to continue to pursue dialogue with international partners.”
Turkish President Abdullah Gul spoke with his Iraqi counterpart, Jalal Talabani, late Thursday about the operation’s goals, Gul’s office said.
The military said its target was PKK rebels and that it does not want to harm civilians “and other local groups that do not act in enmity against the Turkish Armed Forces.”
Nihat Ali Ozcan, a terrorism expert with the research center TEPAV, said the operation was likely launched to hit the group before the traditional start of the fighting season in the spring.
“I think it is aimed to keep the PKK under pressure before the group starts entering Turkey,” he said on CNN-Turk television.
Fouad Hussein, a spokesman for the semiautonomous Kurdish government in Iraq, said Thursday that the Kurdish Peshmerga forces had been put on alert amid speculation that Turkey was on the verge of an incursion. He said Iraqi Kurdish forces also had tightened security around bases housing Turkish military monitors operating in northern Iraq with permission from local authorities under a 1996 agreement.
He said the Turkish monitors had tried to leave their bases in violation of the accord, but Peshmerga forces forced them to return to their camps within half an hour. Turkish media reports said Friday that a total of 1,200 Turkish monitors in four camps in Iraq were helping to coordinate the ground offensive.