DIYARBAKIR, Turkey (Reuters) - Turkish troops have killed 16 Kurdish guerrillas in an operation in southeastern Turkey targeting militants who launched a bomb attack on a military convoy that killed five soldiers, the local governor’s office said on Thursday.
The clashes are part of a growing cycle of violence in the remote, mountainous province of Hakkari bordering Iraq and Iran - a development which Turkish officials and analysts are linking to the deepening conflict in Syria.
The army sent in troop reinforcements and helicopter gunships after Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) rebels detonated remote-controlled bombs in the attack on the army convoy in Hakkari’s Semdinli district on Wednesday.
Five soldiers were killed and seven wounded in that attack, the Hakkari governor’s office said in a statement.
In a sign of Ankara’s growing concern over the mounting violence in the mainly Kurdish region, the commander of the military’s land forces arrived in Hakkari on Thursday.
He sought to reassure mainstream public opinion, which favors a hardline response to militant attacks.
“Our operations in the area will continue without pause,” General Hayri Kivrikoglu was quoted as saying on state media Anatolian’s website.
“We always stand by our people. Our people should not worry. The Turkish armed forces will continue in its duty to protect the security of the people and the region,” he said.
More than 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict between the PKK and Turkish forces since the militants launched their insurgency 28 years ago with the aim of carving out a separate state in mainly Kurdish southeastern Turkey.
Since June last year, nearly 800 people have died in the conflict, including about 500 PKK fighters, more than 200 security personnel and about 85 civilians, according to estimates by think-tank the International Crisis Group.
The conflict is focused in the mountainous region bordering Iraq and Iran, but the PKK has also carried out attacks in Turkish cities. Officials blamed it for a car bombing on Monday which killed nine people in the city of Gaziantep, near Turkey’s southeastern border with Syria.
The PKK, listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union, has denied involvement in that attack.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has accused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of backing PKK fighters and has warned of military intervention in Syria if the group uses Syrian territory to threaten Turkey.
Additional reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley in Istanbul,; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Pravin Char