ANKARA, Turkey (AP) – The Turkish military said Saturday it had killed 19 Kurdish rebels in airstrikes in southeast Turkey, in retaliation for a rebel raid on a military outpost. Six soldiers were also killed in the violence.
The airstrikes were launched in response to an attack late Friday on a military outpost in Hakkari province by the rebels of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, the military said in a statement posted on its Web site.
Hakkari is where the borders of Turkey, Iran and Iraq meet. The military initially said two soldiers were killed, but later raised the death toll to six, saying four more troops died while pursuing the rebels.
The military also claimed that it had dealt a major blow to the rebels during a cross-border air raid deep into northern Iraq earlier this month. It said one rebel leader, Cemil Bayik, was forced to seek refuge in a neighboring country with a large number of his followers and another, Bahoz Erdal, had to leave a mountain haven for another base further away from the Turkish border.
Another PKK commander, whom the military did not name, had sought shelter in mountains away from the fighting zones, the military claimed. Turkish media speculated that the leader may be Murat Karayilan, who has been heading the group since the capture and imprisonment of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999.
The rebels immediately denied the military’s claims. Firat, a pro-Kurdish news agency based in Europe, quoted another rebel leader, Zubeyir Aydar as saying the rebel commanders “were on top of their duties.”
Aydar said the Turkish military had suffered a major blow during the attack on the outpost in Hakkari, and was making the false statements in part to disguise the defeat.
Firat said the PKK had attacked the station with anti-aircraft guns and mortar shells, preventing the military from sending reinforcements to the area.
Aydar also accused the military of engaging in psychological warfare to try to demoralize rebel supporters.
The military claimed that some 200 rebels had laid down arms and found refuge in areas inhabited by local Iraqi Kurds, as a result of the air operation on Mount Qandil in Iraq on May 1-2.
“The process of (the PKK leaders’) sweet dreams turning into a nightmare has begun,” the military said in its statement.
The PKK has fought for self-rule in Turkey’s southeast since 1984. The fighting has killed tens of thousands of people since then.
The group maintains bases in the north of neighboring Iraq, which it uses as a launch pad for attacks against targets inside Turkey.
The United States, which like Turkey considers the PKK to be a terrorist group, has been providing intelligence to help the Turkish military fight the rebels.
Turkey has launched several aerial attacks this year and one major ground operation against rebel bases across the border with Iraq in February. Since then, clashes between rebels and Turkish troops have erupted along Turkey’s border with Iraq.