ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkey launched a heavy air and artillery assault on Kurdish guerrilla targets in northern Iraq overnight after a declaration by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan that he had lost patience with separatists fighting in southeastern Turkey.
Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) separatists use the mountains of northern Iraq as sanctuary from which to launch attacks in south-east Turkey. The raids, the first by Turkey in the area since July 2010, responded to a surge in rebel action in recent months and an ambush Wednesday that killed nine servicemen.
At least 12 warplanes took off from an air base in Diyarbakir, southeastern Turkey, Thursday around 1830 GMT, a Reuters witness said, but it was not immediately clear where they were headed. Turkish military officials were not immediately available for comment on the warplanes’ destination.
Earlier, the Turkish General Staff said artillery hit 168 targets in the region overnight before warplanes pounded 60 positions in two waves. Camps housing the PKK’s commanders were among those targeted, security sources said.
“Our patience has finally run out. Those who do not distance themselves from terrorism will pay the price,” Erdogan said on Wednesday on the sidelines of a conference in Istanbul.
His comments and subsequent major air operation indicate a return to a hardline stance in the 27-year-old fight against the rebels and an end to clandestine talks between the state and jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.
After a clear victory in June’s parliamentary election, Erdogan vowed to press ahead with reforms addressing the 12-million-strong Kurdish minority’s grievances. A wave of PKK attacks has brought an abrupt change of tone and heightened prospects of intensified conflict.
As well as continuing the air assaults, the armed forces could launch a ground incursion against the militants in northern Iraq, as they have in the past. Further legal action could also be taken against Kurdish politicians, currently boycotting parliament and accused of close links to the PKK.
Some commentators backed the stronger response but there was also concern about its consequences. The militants could in turn strike back by staging urban attacks.
“Stronger retaliation against violence is on the agenda, but it’s a method that has been tried and failed before,” said Can Dundar, a columnist with the liberal daily Milliyet.
“Democratising Turkey, winning over people in the region through constitutional rights, paving the way from the mountain to the plain was the difficult but the right policy,” he said.
The General Staff said in a statement the strikes had centred on Qandil Mountain, Hakurk, Avasin-Basyan, Zap and Metina regions. All planes had returned safely to their bases.
It said operations would continue until the PKK was “rendered ineffective.”
In the second air raid, six F-16 jets took off from a base in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir. The targets included anti-aircraft defences and rebel shelters in the region. Around 30 planes took part in the entire operation, the sources said.
More than 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict since the PKK took up arms for Kurdish self-rule in 1984.
Turkey’s National Security Council, chaired by President Abdullah Gul, issued a written statement after a regular meeting Thursday, saying it would adopt a “more effective and decisive fight in the fight against terrorism,” local media reported. It did not elaborate on what those measures would be.
The air operation drew condemnation from the speaker of parliament in northern Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region.
“This is a clear violation of Iraq’s sovereignty,” said speaker Kamal Kirkuki. “We strongly condemn the shelling by Turkey and any other party on Iraqi soil.”
It was not clear what damage the operation had caused but Dozdar Hamo, a PKK spokesman, told Reuters in Iraq the bombing was intense and occurred near three Kurdish villages.
“There were no casualties among the PKK. One PKK checkpoint was targeted, no one was hurt,” he said Thursday. Arbil province governor Nawzad Hadi said he had no information on casualties and only one house was damaged in the province.
Turkey and Iran have often skirmished with Kurdish rebels in that region. Last month Iranian shelling of the area forced hundreds to flee their homes during clashes with the PJAK, an Iranian offshoot of the PKK. There were no indications of Iranian involvement in the latest operation.
Wednesday, the PKK attacked a military convoy at Cukurca in southeast Turkey’s Hakkari province. The General Staff said eight soldiers and one member of the state-backed village guard militia were killed. Fifteen troops were wounded.
Last month, the PKK’s Ocalan sent word through his lawyers that he had agreed with Turkish officials to set up a “peace council” aimed at ending the conflict. But the mood turned sour after the PKK subsequently killed 13 troops, the highest death toll for Turkish troops since the PKK ended a cease-fire in February.
State talks with Ocalan ended in late July and since then his lawyers have been unable to visit him in his island prison near Istanbul. This week a court banned four lawyers from representing him for a year.
The PKK is designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.
Thursday’s National Security Council meeting follows a period of upheaval in the armed forces. Four new commanders were appointed this month to replace those who resigned in protest at the jailing of hundreds of their colleagues in connection with anti-government conspiracies.
Additional reporting by Seyhmus Cakan in Diyarbakir, Jonathon Burch in Ankara and Shamal Aqrawi in Arbil, Iraq, Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Jon Boyle