DIYARBAKIR, Turkey (Reuters) - Turkish soldiers and Kurdish militants clashed on Tuesday in the most intense battles of the separatist conflict this year, with 18 combatants killed in fighting at three army outposts in the southeast, officials and security sources said.
Up to 100 Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) guerrillas launched simultaneous attacks at dawn on the three military observation points in Hakkari province near the mountainous border with Iraq, killing eight soldiers and wounding 16, the sources said.
In subsequent clashes Turkish troops killed 10 PKK guerrillas, the Hakkari governor’s office said.
The attacks came at a time of new efforts in Turkey to address the grievances of the Kurdish minority to end a conflict that has scarred the region for three decades.
“I curse this treacherous attack,” President Abdullah Gul said in a statement. “The terrorist group wants to sabotage the atmosphere of trust and stability and is continuing its inhumane bloody attacks.”
The guerrillas began the coordinated attacks with rocket launchers and rifles on the outposts and the fighting went on throughout the day, the sources said. The militants were believed to have crossed the border from northern Iraq.
Several thousand PKK militants are based in mountain hideouts in northern Iraq, from where they regularly launch attacks on state targets in mainly Kurdish southeast Turkey.
Armed forces chief General Necdet Ozel rushed to the region, along with the commanders of the ground forces and paramilitary gendarmerie, Turkish media reported. The interior minister and a deputy prime minister also headed there.
Government and state officials met to discuss the fighting on Tuesday afternoon in Ankara in the office of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who was attending the G20 summit in Mexico.
The PKK, designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and European Union, launched its separatist insurgency in 1984. More than 40,000 people have been killed.
In his efforts to resolve the conflict, Erdogan has told parliament that Kurdish language lessons could be offered in schools. He also suggested he was prepared to hold talks with prominent Kurdish politician Leyla Zana after she said she believed he was capable of ending the Kurdish troubles.
Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc raised the possibility at the weekend of jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan being put under house arrest if the militants were to lay down their weapons.
However other leading government figures, pointing to nationalist sensitivities over such a radical move, dismissed the idea, and Erdogan said it was only Arinc’s personal view.
Concerns about the PKK insurgency have been exacerbated by the conflict in Syria, which also has a Kurdish minority.
PKK rebels have launched sporadic attacks in recent months near the Syrian border in Hatay province, where thousands of Syrians are housed in refugee camps.
One Turkish soldier was killed on Monday night in Hatay in a clash with PKK militants, the governor’s office there said.
Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Angus MacSwan