ANKARA (Reuters) - Thousands of flag-waving Turks mourned the deaths of three army officers at their funerals in Ankara’s main mosque on Monday in a show of solidarity with the military’s fight against Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq.
Mourners held aloft pictures of slain soldiers and chanted slogans denouncing the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) guerrilla group, the target of a Turkish military cross-border offensive.
“We always stand behind our army. If our soldiers did not fight there, we could not stay in this country here now,” said Memis Deveci, who said his son was fighting on the Iraqi border against the PKK.
Turkey’s military General Staff said on Monday the number of PKK militant fighters killed in the ground and air offensive had risen to 153. It said 17 Turkish soldiers have been killed.
Ankara launched the incursion on Thursday in a remote part of Iraq’s largely autonomous region of Kurdistan to hunt down PKK rebels who use the area as a base to attack inside Turkey.
“They died fighting for this country. Pray to God that they rest in peace in heaven and pray to God to give our army strength. Let our country not suffer such pain again,” Turkey’s top Islamic authority Ali Bardakoglu said in a funeral prayer.
Young men shouted “God is great” and “Down with the PKK”.
They said they were volunteers to fight in northern Iraq. Military service is compulsory for all healthy Turkish men.
Weeping elderly women told officers who were present at the funeral that they were praying for them.
“Let our soldiers return with victory,” said Aydin Abdurrahman, a former soldier who lost a leg in a mine blast in northern Iraq.
“I came here to show my solidarity with the families. They must be suffering a lot,” Abdurrahman said.
Ankara blames the PKK for the deaths of nearly 40,000 people since the group launched its armed struggle in 1984 for an ethnic homeland in southeast Turkey. Turkish military operations in northern Iraq in the 1990s failed to wipe out the guerrillas.
Editing by Daren Butler and Mary Gabriel