ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkish warplanes struck Kurdish militant targets in northern Iraq overnight and some 500 soldiers have crossed the border with armored vehicles, military and security sources told Reuters on Tuesday, in an escalation of hostilities.
The Turkish forces were advancing toward a Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) camp at Haftanin, around 20 km (12 miles) from the Habur border post and north of the town of Dahuk.
The sources described it as the busiest military activity along the border since the Turkish army launched cross-border activities last week in response to a PKK attack on Turkish forces which killed 24 soldiers in Hakkari, bordering Iraq.
Warplanes bombed PKK targets at Haftanin and Hakurke, the sources said, adding that tanks and armored vehicles crossed into northern Iraq on Monday. Several hundred PKK fighters are believed to be based at Haftanin.
The remoteness of the camps’ locations and the tricky terrain made it difficult to assess how close the Turkish forces had moved toward the camps but the militants reported the start of clashes.
“Around 1,000 Turkish troops infiltrated today the village of Haftanin, supported by Turkish fighter jets and helicopters,” said PKK spokesman Roj Welat.
“Clashes erupted between Turkish troops and PKK fighters who tried to stop the Turkish forces,” he said. There were no reports of casualties.
Haftanin is further west than the Zab valley region, across the border from Hakkari, where Turkish military operations took place last week. It is also far to the west of the Qandil area, where the main PKK camps are located, close to Iraq’s border with Iran.
Several thousand PKK fighters are based in the mountains of northern Iraq, from where they launch attacks on Turkish forces in southeast Turkey.
According to a resident, about 1,000 Turkish troops were located around the village of Ure, less than 5 km (3 miles) from the Turkish border and about 50 km west of Haftanin. Ure is a district of Zakho in Dahuk province.
The witness said the Turkish troops entered the village in the morning and were surrounding it but there had been no clashes. He said the troops were carrying rifles and were on foot, with no military vehicles in sight.
“They only spread out around the village. We are worried. We don’t know what will happen. We are in our houses afraid to go out,” he said, requesting anonymity.
A senior police official from Iraqi border forces told Reuters on condition of anonymity: “Yes we are aware of a Turkish military infiltration in the village of Ure. It is a remote and very difficult area. So we expect they will walk out from this area today.”
Turkish air strikes have killed 250 to 270 Kurdish militants, wounded 210 and destroyed many arms stores in northern Iraq since August 17, news broadcaster NTV on Monday quoted armed forces head General Necdet Ozel as saying.
Ankara’s reaction to one of the deadliest attacks on its security forces in a conflict that began three decades ago had fueled speculation that Turkey could move to a full-blown incursion to clear out PKK camps deeper inside northern Iraq.
More than 40,000 people have been killed since the conflict began in 1984. The United States, the European Union and Turkey designate the PKK as a terrorist organization.
Additional reporting by Shamal Aqrawi in Arbil; Writing by Daren Butler, Editing by Elizabeth Piper