ANKARA (Reuters) - The Turkish military stepped up aerial bombing of suspected Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq and in Turkey on Monday after the death of 17 Turkish soldiers in a cross-border attack on Friday.
Public anger is mounting after the attack — the deadliest against the military in a year — and Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and the powerful military have pledged to intensify a campaign to crush the outlawed PKK.
The incident has strained ties between Iraq and Turkey, which accuses its neighbour of not doing enough to combat rebels of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) based in mountainous northern Iraq. Two soldiers were wounded in Friday’s attack, in which the rebels used heavy weapons, and two initially reported missing were confirmed dead by the army on Monday.
“The military continues to follow terrorist members who took part in the October 3 attack,” the General Staff said in a statement, announcing the third such aerial attack on rebel bases in northern Iraq since the PKK ambush.
“Our warplanes achieved their mission and came back to base safely,” the statement said.
It said the raid targeted a group of PKK militants holed up in the Avasin Basyan region. There was no indication of whether the raids had caused casualties or what damage had been caused.
Later on Monday the military said in a statement it had also carried out air strikes against a group of rebels sighted in the Bozul mountains in southeastern Hakkari province, near Iraq.
NATO member Turkey has attacked PKK bases in northern Iraq several times over the past 12 months but has confined itself to shelling and air strikes since a brief large-scale land offensive in February.
Mourners booed Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul during funerals on Sunday for some of the soldiers killed. Waving Turkish flags, thousands poured into the streets across the country in mourning.
Earlier on Monday Kurdish PKK rebels said they were holding the two missing Turkish soldiers.
“We have two Turkish soldiers. I cannot confirm if they are dead or alive. We will announce this soon,” PKK spokesman Ahmed Danees said by telephone to a Reuters journalist based in Kurdish northern Iraq.
However the army later announced the bodies of the two had been found.
Last October the PKK captured eight Turkish soldiers and held them hostage but they were released a few weeks later.
A large-scale offensive against the PKK in Iraq would draw sharp criticism from Turkey’s main ally, the United States, and the European Union, which Ankara wants to join.
Washington and Brussels are concerned that a large-scale Turkish operation in northern Iraq would further destabilise Iraq and the wider region.
Several thousand PKK fighters are believed to be based in northern Iraq, from where they stage attacks on mainly military targets in southeast Turkey. Forcing them out of the mountains is likely to require more than sporadic air raids.
Turkey blames the PKK, considered a terrorist organisation by the United States and the EU, for the deaths of more than 40,000 people since it launched its armed campaign for an ethnic Kurdish homeland in southeast Turkey in 1984.
Analysts said the PKK, weakened by regular air strikes, appeared to have timed its ambush carefully, striking shortly before the winter snows make a large incursion improbable.
Parliament is likely to approve on Wednesday a government request for an extension of its mandate to launch military operations against the PKK in Iraq as needed. The current mandate expires on October 17.
Turkey’s constitutional court is considering whether to ban the country’s largest pro-Kurdish party, the Democratic Society party (DTP), for alleged links to the PKK.
Banning the DTP would bolster the image of the PKK, which says armed struggle is the only way to achieve Kurdish political and cultural rights denied by the Turkish state.
Additional reporting by Alexandra Hudson; editing by Ralph Boulton