The Turkish military said on Saturday its forces had killed 49 Kurdish militants in the southeast over the last two days, during an offensive to avenge the killing of 24 soldiers by Kurdish fighters earlier this week.
The counter-insurgency operation against separatist rebels from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), involving thousands of troops and into its third day, has focused on both sides of the mountainous Turkey-Iraq border.
Ankara’s reaction to one of the deadliest attacks on its security forces in a conflict that began three decades ago has ignited speculation that Turkey could move to a full blown incursion to clear out PKK camps deeper inside northern Iraq.
The military said it had spotted 35 militants during the early hours of Saturday morning in the Kazan Valley in Cukurca, a district of Hakkari Province located along the Iraqi border.
Cukurca is where many of the 24 Turkish soldiers were killed when PKK militants attacked several mountain military outposts on Wednesday.
Turkish forces launched artillery raids, followed by air strikes against the militants during the night, Turkey’s general staff said in a statement on its Web site, adding that troops had later discovered the dead bodies of 35 fighters.
The bodies of 14 other militants were discovered in the same valley nearby, seven of them in a cave, bringing the total number of fighters killed in the last two days to 49, it said.
The military has not provided a number for how many soldiers are engaged in the operations, but said on Friday it had deployed troops from 22 battalions in five different areas, meaning there could be more than 10,000 troops involved.
In Cukurca, several military personnel and attack helicopters could be seen flying overhead but there was little military movement on the ground. Reporters were stopped by Turkish soldiers from entering the road leading to the Kazan valley.
Cukurca and the surrounding area is located high in the mountains above the Zab Valley, a narrow gorge that cuts its way through the district. The Zab River winds its way along the gorge before flowing into the Tigris in northern Iraq.
In Cukurca town, no more than a few dozen houses clinging to the side of the mountain, residents dismissed the Turkish military offensive as a fact of life.
“We are used to these helicopters flying overhead every day now,” said one man in his 20s as he sat down in one of the town’s two restaurants.
“What can we do? We like both sides but we are constantly under pressure, we just want peace,” he said, referring to the Turkish military and the PKK. The man did not want to be identified for fear of reprisal.
Other residents suggested they were caught in the middle, saying they feared for their lives during Wednesday’s PKK attack.
“The bullets came down like rain. We just laid down on the ground wherever we were and prayed we would be alright. The attacks went on for hours,” another man said.
The PKK has stepped up attacks on Turkish security forces in recent months and Wednesday’s raid was one of the bloodiest for Turkish forces since the militants first waged war on the Turkish state in 1984. Turkish President Abdullah Gul has vowed “great revenge” for the attacks.
While Turkey’s strong response to the attacks may appease a large portion of the Turkish public, many Turks and Kurds have grown weary of the violence.
After three decades of conflict in which more than 40,000 have been killed, the PKK, founded in the 1970s by the now captive Abdullah Ocalan, has dropped demands for a Kurdish state in favor of greater rights for Turkey’s 15 million Kurds.
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