Turkey taking closer aim at militants in northern Iraq: minister

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkey indicated on Wednesday it was poised to step up attacks on Kurdish militant camps in the mountains of northern Iraq, after the military said it had “neutralized” at least six fighters in air strikes.

Turkey regularly carries out cross-border operations against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in northern Iraq, where the group is based in the Qandil mountains. Ankara has also threatened to launch military operations in northern Iraq’s Sinjar region.

“Qandil is not a distant target. The Turkey that looked at Qandil from far away is in the past now,” Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu told broadcaster NTV. He said Turkish forces were forming a line some 27 km (17 miles) from the border in northern Iraq.

Soylu also said that an operation against Qandil had nothing to do with this month’s Turkish elections. Turks go to the polls on June 24 for parliamentary and presidential elections. In recent speeches, President Tayyip Erdogan has emphasized the need to fight Kurdish militants in both Syria and Iraq.

“We have neutralized 4,500 terrorists in Afrin. They fled,” Erdogan said on Tuesday, referring to a Turkish military operation to drive Kurdish fighters from part of northern Syria.

“Qandil is next, Sinjar is next. We will face up to whoever is threatening, disturbing my country,” he said during a rally in the Black Sea region of Eregli.

The PKK, considered a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union and Turkey, has waged a three-decade insurgency in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast that has killed some 40,000 people.

An air strike by Turkish warplanes “neutralized” at least six PKK militants in northern Iraq, the military said on Twitter.

The air strike carried out on Tuesday targeted the Hakurk, Gara, Metina, Zap, Qandil, Avasin regions of northern Iraq, the Turkish military said, destroying 16 targets.

Turkish officials often use the term “neutralize” in statements about attacks on militants, without giving precise details. It is generally understood to mean that they were killed, captured or wounded.

Reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun; Editing by Dominic Evans, David Dolan, William Maclean