ANKARA, Turkey, (AP) – Government troops trapped a group of about 100 separatist Kurdish rebels in a rugged region close to Turkey’s border with Iraq, after blocking all escape routes across the frontier, Turkey’s state-run news agency reported Monday.
Farther north, a soldier was killed after stepping on a land mine believed to have been planted by the rebels in Tunceli province, where the military was waging a separate operation against guerrillas from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, the local governor’s office said.
Turkey’s leaders are facing pressure to act against separatist Kurdish rebels and have threatened to stage a cross-border military offensive into northern Iraq to hunt down them down. But the U.S., Iraq and other countries have pressed Turkey to refrain from cross-border operations.
The official Anatolia news agency said troops — which have been shelling mountain passages used by the rebels to escape to bases in Iraq — trapped the group of rebels in the Ikiyaka mountains in Hakkari province that borders Iraq, forcing them to hide in caves.
The military was pressing on with land and air operations in the area, the agency said. Troops, backed by attack helicopters, were also pursuing rebels in Sirnak province, which also borders Iraq, Anatolia reported.
The reports could not immediately be independently verified.
On Sunday, attack helicopters buzzed over a hilly region in Tunceli looking for PKK rebels after troops reportedly killed 15 separatist guerrillas in a morning operation. Tunceli is far removed from the border with Iraq where most recent clashes have broken out.
PKK fighters have killed at least 43 people in the past month. Those casualties included some 30 Turkish soldiers in two ambushes that were the boldest attacks in years.
Oil prices rose above $93 a barrel to a new trading high in Asia on Monday partially on the growing political tensions in the Middle East, including concerns that Turkey may send troops south across the border.
Such a campaign could derail one of the few stable areas in Iraq, and leave the United States in an awkward position with key allies: NATO-member Turkey, the Baghdad government and the self-governing Iraqi Kurds in the north.
In Washington, Turkish Ambassador Nabi Sensoy said the PKK rebels had camped along the Turkish border in five places from where they were conducting their hit-and-run attacks.
He said his country was willing to “employ and exhaust all the diplomatic possibilities and peaceful possibilities” but that it would use military force if needed, despite pressure from the United States, Iraq and other countries to refrain from a cross-border attack.
“They cannot expect Turkey to sit idly by to see that the Turkish population is being slaughtered by the PKK,” he said on CNN’s Sunday show “Late Edition.”
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday called for unity between Turks and his country’s minority Kurds, but reiterated his government’s determination to fight Iraq-based separatist Kurdish rebels.
“As long as we are firmly bound together, the treacherous separatist terrorist attacks will never reach their goal,” Erdogan said Sunday in a message before celebrations on Monday to mark the 84th anniversary of the Turkish republic.
“I want to declare this one more time: the struggle we lead against the separatist terrorism that aims to destroy our unity and our constitutional order will continue with belief and determination,” he said.
A nine-mile race across Istanbul’s Bosporus bridge to the European side of the city turned into an anti-PKK protest Sunday, with thousands of runners waiving Turkish flags and shouting slogans denouncing the rebels.
But riot police cracked down quickly on a pro-PKK rally in the poor Okmeydani neighborhood of Istanbul, shooting tear gas into the crowd and dispersing the 150 demonstrators. Some young men then threw rocks at police before running away into side streets.