ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkish warplanes and attack helicopters struck targets in the mountains of northern Iraq, Turkey’s defense ministry said on Thursday, adding that the military had “neutralized” 19 Kurdish militants as its operation there entered a fourth day.
The ministry said two Turkish soldiers died on Wednesday from wounds sustained in a bomb blast during what it dubbed “Operation Claw”, targeting Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants in the Hakurk region, near Turkey’s southeastern tip.
Smoke rose from a hilltop and gunfire rang out as attack helicopters circled in the sky in a video published by the ministry, which it said showed the destruction of a PKK heavy machine gun position.
The ministry said on Thursday the military had “neutralized” four militants in the latest action, bringing the total to 19, using a term that commonly refers to deaths, but can also refer to those wounded or captured.
Warplanes also carried out strikes in border regions of northern Iraq west of Hakurk, destroying PKK gun positions, shelters and ammunition stores, the ministry said.
The cross-border push began with artillery and air strikes on Monday before helicopters landed commandos in the region. The PKK is based in Iraq’s Qandil area, south of Hakurk.
The PKK launched an insurgency in mainly Kurdish southeast Turkey in 1984 and more than 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict. It is designated a terrorist group by Ankara, the European Union and United States.
The PKK said on Wednesday three of its militants had been killed in Turkish air strikes in the Qandil region.
Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the third largest in parliament, said such operations created crises and called on the opposition to oppose the military action.
“At least 30 similar operations have been carried out with the same aim until now. None have created a solution. They have done nothing but consume the country’s resources and raise the death toll,” it said in a written statement.
PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, jailed on an island near Istanbul since 1999, was allowed to meet his lawyers this month for the first time in nearly eight years after a hunger strike by HDP lawmakers and thousands of inmates. [nL5N23206H]
They ended their protest on Sunday in response to a call from Ocalan. The move, a month before a re-run of the Istanbul mayoral election, had prompted speculation about steps toward a new peace process. Ankara’s previous talks with Ocalan on ending the conflict fell apart in 2015, triggering fierce fighting.
Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul has denied the decision to allow Ocalan lawyers’ had any connection with the election or with any effort to launch a new peace process.
Reporting by Daren Butler; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky