ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkey's military has the capability to launch a sustained operation against a Kurdish militant base in Iraq and believes that the group's members are also receiving training in Syria and Iran, the head of the armed forces said in a rare interview.
General Necdet Ozel told the Turkiye newspaper that a sustained assault on the main base of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in the Qandil mountain region of northern Iraq was "technically possible" but gave no details on whether such an operation was planned.
Clashes in recent months between Turkey's armed forces and militants from the PKK - considered a terrorist organisation by Ankara, the United States and European Union - have been among the heaviest since the group took up arms 28 years ago.
Turkey has stepped up air operations on suspected PKK rebels in northern Iraq over the past year after an increase in PKK attacks, fuelling tensions between Ankara and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
"They are very well protected and frequently change location. We are working to render them ineffective," Ozel said of the PKK's leaders, using a phrase frequently employed by Turkish military officials to describe the killing of militants.
Asked whether the PKK had camps in Syria and Iran, Ozel said: "The terror organisation has terrorist groups in the countries you mention. Terrorists are educated in these camps."
Ankara has linked the surge in PKK violence to the unrest in neighbouring Syria and Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has accused Syria's President Bashar al-Assad of arming the PKK militants.
Turkey has raised the possibility of military intervention in Syria if the PKK were to launch attacks from Syrian soil. The military has conducted exercises on the Syrian border in a clear warning to Damascus.
In written answers to questions from the newspaper, the general said that the armed forces were receiving "limited" intelligence support from the United States in its operations.
Ozel said that 110 soldiers and 427 PKK militants had been killed since the start of the year in clashes that have centred on the fragile south-eastern region bordering Iran, Iraq and Syria.
Six soldiers were among seven people killed in a PKK bomb attack on a military vehicle in Tunceli, eastern Turkey, on Tuesday, the latest in a series of guerrilla-style attacks on the armed forces.
Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Nick Tattersall and David Goodman