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World News

Turkey sends troops to Iraq border after PKK raid

ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkish commandos backed by helicopters deployed along the Iraqi border on Monday after Kurdish guerrillas killed 11 soldiers at the weekend in one of the deadliest attacks for years in their separatist war.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan (C) speaks with Turkish soldiers in a trench during his visit to the Turkish city of Hakkari at the border with Iraq June 20, 2010. REUTERS/Kayhan Ozer/Anatolian

In Ankara, President Abdullah Gul chaired an emergency security meeting, attended by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and military leaders, as pressure mounted for the government to rein in escalating violence in the mainly Kurdish southeast.

In fresh violence, Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) guerrillas attacked two military police units on Monday in Diyarbakir, the largest city in the southeast, killing one soldier and wounding another, security sources said. Four rebels died in the clashes.

Elite troops rappelled down from helicopters and poured out in mechanized infantry units to surround Kurdish rebels in an operation along the Iraqi border, security sources said.

The deployment has boosted troop numbers well into the thousands along the border with Iraq, where rebels are based.

Helicopter gunships struck suspected PKK mountain positions in the provinces of Hakkari and Sirnak, security sources said.

“A review of intelligence and the structure of personnel in the region was discussed,” a statement from Gul’s office said after the security summit.

In late 2007, a similarly deadly PKK attack on a military unit in Hakkari was followed in early 2008 by a cross-border Turkish land offensive against rebel targets in northern Iraq.

Erdogan, who has said Kurdish militants would “drown in their own blood”, faces mounting criticism for his government’s failure to stop the escalation in violence.

Images of soldiers’ coffins, draped in red-and-white Turkish flags, have raised tensions in Turkey, with relatives of dead soldiers chanting slogans against the government at funerals.

More than 40,000 people, mainly Kurds, have been killed since the PKK took up arms in 1984 seeking an ethnic homeland. Erdogan has granted more political and cultural rights to minority Kurds in an effort to end separatist violence.

But his “Kurdish initiative” floundered after it was poorly received in the rest of the country and following a decision by the Constitutional Court late last year to ban the largest Kurdish political party in parliament for its links to the PKK.

SABOTAGE CHARGE

Turkey, which relies partly on its NATO ally the United States for intelligence sharing on PKK movement in northern Iraq, struck a critical tone following a cabinet meeting.

“We expect more support from countries with which we have friendly relations,” said Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek.

Intelligence-sharing with the United States, which brands the PKK a terrorist group, has helped Turkey target rebels in northern Iraq, both in the past and since Saturday’s attack.

“The PKK is a common enemy of Turkey and of the United States,” James Jeffrey, the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, said in a statement. “There is no change to the level of our intelligence- sharing with Turkey regarding PKK activities in northern Iraq.”

Erdogan has said the latest wave of attacks was an attempt to sabotage efforts by his ruling AK Party to end the 25-year conflict. He faces an election before July 2011.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the opposition People’s Republican Party, has said political decisions have weakened the struggle against the PKK. Devlet Bahceli, leader of the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party, has called for early elections and the return of emergency rule in the southeast.

The PKK said this month it had scrapped a year-old unilateral ceasefire and resumed attacks against Turkish forces because of military operations against it. Violence often rises in southeast Turkey in the spring, when warm weather makes it easier for guerrillas to cross the mountain border from Iraq.

Writing by Ibon Villelabeitia and Thomas Grove; editing by Peter Graff

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