ZAKHU, Iraq (Reuters) - Turkey’s incursion into northern Iraq will be met with strong opposition if civilians or populated areas are attacked, the leadership of the largely autonomous northern Kurdistan region said on Saturday.
“Any attack on any citizen in Kurdistan or populated areas will be answered with massive resistance ... and all preparations have been made in this matter,” a statement from the presidency of the Kurdish Regional Government said.
Iraq’s government, which has pushed for a diplomatic solution to the crisis, told Turkey that its military operation against the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) would not stop rebel attacks on its soil.
Turkey has said it is carrying out a limited operation against the PKK, and U.S. officials say Ankara has given assurances it will do all it can to avoid civilian casualties.
The operation is taking place in a remote mountainous area that is sparsely populated and far from any major urban area. The Iraqi Red Crescent said on Friday that only 11 families, less than 100 people, had been displaced by the incursion.
A PKK spokesman said on Saturday rebels had killed 22 Turkish soldiers with five PKK fighters wounded. Turkey’s General Staff on Friday said it had lost five soldiers and killed at least 55 rebels.
There were no confirmed reports of the Kurdish region’s battle-hardened peshmerga security forces moving into the area of the Turkish operation. Kurdish officials regard the mountainous border region as outside their control.
Turkish troops backed by warplanes have crossed into northern Iraq in pursuit of the PKK rebels who use the region as a launchpad for attacks on southern Turkey.
Ankara blames the PKK for the deaths of nearly 40,000 people since it began its armed struggle in 1984. Washington and the EU, like Turkey, classify the PKK as a terrorist organization.
“We understand completely the size of the threat Turkey faces, but military operations will not solve the PKK crisis,” Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told a news conference in Baghdad.
Turkish news reports say between 3,000 and 10,000 troops are involved in the northern Iraq operation, which began on Thursday night. But Dabbagh challenged this figure on Saturday.
“Information confirms there is not a great number, that the number of Turkish troops that have crossed the Iraqi border is less than 1,000. The operation is very limited,” he said.
A senior military officer with coalition forces in Baghdad also said fewer than 1,000 troops were involved.
Turkish troops shelled targets in the Amadiya area about 10 km south of the border for two hours early on Saturday, said the director of Iraq’s border guard command in Dahuk, Brigadier-General Hussein Tamar. He knew of no casualties.
Additional reporting by Michael Holden in Baghdad, Sherko Raouf in Sulaimaniya; Writing by Mohammed Abbas; Editing by Ross Colvin and Jon Boyle