Turkish soldiers have killed 26 Kurdish rebels in two days in an offensive involving over 2,000 troops, as well as F-16 fighter planes operating on both sides of the Turkey-Iraq border, security sources said on Friday.
The operation against separatist rebels from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) began on Wednesday night in Sirnak, a southeasterly province bordering Iraq and Syria and the site of frequent clashes between rebels and Turkish troops.
This summer has been one of the bloodiest in Turkey since the PKK took up arms against the goverrnment in 1984 with the aim of carving out a Kurdish state.
Turkish security sources told reporters that 26 militants had been killed since the start of the offensive.
“The intense operation is continuing,” the sources said.
The operation has largely focused on Kato mountain, a remote area of Sirnak, but Turkish security sources as well as Iraqi residents said planes had bombed areas inside northern Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region.
A witness said he had seen several F-16 planes take off from Diyarbakir air base on Thursday night and Friday morning. Diyarbakir is the main city in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast region.
There were no reports that Turkish ground troops had crossed the border into northern Iraq, although Turkey has sent soldiers into the region in the past.
Ankara has stepped up air operations on suspected PKK rebels in northern Iraq over the past year after an increase in PKK attacks. The raids have fueled tension between Ankara and the Kurdistan Regional Government, the ruling body of the Iraqi Kurdish region.
Security sources said one Turkish soldier had been killed during clashes with PKK militants at the start of the offensive on Wednesday night.
On Sunday last week, PKK fighters killed 10 members of Turkey’s security services in simultaneous attacks on four state and security installations in Sirnak Province.
More than 40,000 people have been killed since the start of the conflict between the Turkish state and the PKK, which is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the US and the EU.
On Dec. 29 last year, Turkish warplanes killed 35 civilian smugglers in northern Iraq when they mistook them for Kurdish militants, sparking violent clashes between hundreds of stone-throwing protesters and police in Diyarbakir.
In the 15 months up to last month, about 800 people were killed, including about 500 PKK fighters, more than 200 security personnel and about 85 civilians, according to estimates by the International Crisis Group think tank.
The Turkish government has linked the surge in violence to the unrest in neighboring Syria and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has accused Syrian 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. On Wednesday, the military conducted a major military exercise on the Syrian border, a clear warning to Damascus.