TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said on Wednesday they had killed dozens of Kurdish rebels in a military campaign that critics say has endangered civilians across the border in Iraq.
Colonel Hamid Ahmadi denied Iran had shelled villages in Iraq during its pursuit of the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK), an offshoot of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which Tehran blames for sabotage attacks on gas pipelines and ambushing its troops.
Aid agencies say Iranian shelling has killed some civilians and forced hundreds to flee their homes in the mountainous areas of northern Iraq, a charge Ahmadi denied.
“Even if we certainly know and if we become informed that the PKK has a base near a village, we won’t attack that base,” Ahmadi told a news conference in Tehran.
He confirmed between 40 to 50 people had been killed in the military campaign. “Other statistics show up to 90. I don’t confirm those statistics,” he said.
An anonymous Iranian military official has previously said Tehran considers it a right to target “terrorist bases” beyond its borders, although officials have been equivocal about saying so on the record.
Ahmadi said: “We have not set foot on Iraqi soil,” but added that his border troops would not just accept being attacked from outside Iran.
The semi-official Fars news agency quoted an unidentified military official in July as saying Iran would “not allow terrorists to nest in Iraq and to carry out attacks against our nation with the support of America and the Zionist regime (Israel).
Iran’s ambassador to Iraq, Hassan Danaifar, hinted that Tehran had Baghdad’s blessing to pursue the rebels. “They know this group as terrorists and they announced it is Iran’s right to deal with this group,” he told Fars.
Alaeddin Boroujerdi, head of the Iranian parliament’s foreign affairs committee, told state broadcaster IRIB on Wednesday: “What Iran is doing is not invading Iraqi soil but is invading the PJAK terrorist group.”
Ahmadi confirmed that his troops had not captured the deputy to jailed PKK leader Adullah Ocalan, saying reports of the arrest of Murat Karayilan, the PKK’s field commander, last Saturday, had started due to confusion over the name of someone who had been caught.
Reporting by Hami Hamedi and Mitra Amiri; Writing by Robin Pomeroy Editing by Maria Golovnina