SIRNAK, Turkey – Kurdish rebels ambushed a military unit near Turkey’s border with Iraq early Sunday, killing 12 soldiers and increasing pressure on the Turkish government to stage attacks against guerrilla camps in Iraq. Iraq’s president, a Kurd, ordered Kurdish guerrillas to lay down their weapons or leave.
The soldiers died when rebels blew up a bridge as a 12-vehicle military convoy was crossing it, CNN-Turk television said. The Turkish military said it killed 23 guerrillas in a counteroffensive, and Iraq reported Turkish shelling toward Kurdish villages in the border area in northern Iraq. There were no casualties in the artillery bombardment.
The pro-Kurdish Firat news agency, based in Belgium, later said rebels also took several Turkish soldiers hostage. Firat cited guerrilla sources, but there was no immediate confirmation.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani urged the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, to stop their attacks amid fears an incursion would destabilize the relatively peaceful autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq.
“But if they insist on the continuation of fighting, they should leave Kurdistan, Iraq and not create problems here. And they should return to their countries and do there whatever they want,” Talabani said at a joint news conference with Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani.
Turkey has been pressing the U.S. and the Iraqi government to crack down on rebels who have found safe havens in the remote, mountainous areas of northern Iraq. The United States opposes any unilateral action by Turkey, fearing it could destabilize the most stable part of Iraq.
Separately, 17 people were injured injured when a bomb exploded as a minibus — part of a wedding convoy — passed near the area where the soldiers were killed, the local governor’s office said.
“Our anger, our hatred is great,” Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on national television. He said the government would hold an emergency meeting later Sunday and would take “an approach that is calm, far from agitation and based on common sense.”
The attack came four days after Turkey’s Parliament overwhelmingly passed a motion authorizing its military to launch an offensive into northern Iraq against hideouts of the rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. Sunday’s death toll raises the number of soldiers killed in PKK attacks in the past two weeks to around 30.
Turkish leaders have said that the parliament motion did not mean that Turkey would immediately order a cross-border offensive, but the latest attack was likely to increase calls by a frustrated public for the military to stage an incursion. Previous offensives by Turkey in Iraq have blunted rebel strength, but failed to eradicate the group.
“Everything will be done within the legal framework of this authorization. We have no concerns about who would say what,” Erdogan said, indicating that Turkey was prepared to ignore calls of restraint from Washington and Baghdad in the face of escalating PKK attacks.
“These latest developments, I believe, will make us implement sharper measures,” Labor Minister Faruk Celik said.
The attack occurred just after midnight, during a military offensive against rebels near the Turkish village of Daglica, in Hakkari province, where the borders of Turkey, Iraq and Iran meet. Hakkari is east of neighboring Sirnak province, another area of conflict between the PKK and the Turkish military.
“A large PKK group that infiltrated across our borders launched a three-pronged attack on an infantry company near the town of Daglica, and in the ensuing clash 12 soldiers were martyred and 16 soldiers were wounded,” the military said in a statement. The area of the attack is about five kilometers (three miles) from the border with Iraq
The military said it launched an operation backed by helicopter gunships to catch the rebels who attacked the military unit, killing 23 rebels, scouring escape routes and shelling 63 “possible targets.”
Clashes were under way south of the area where the soldiers were ambushed, the military statement said. There were no reports that troops had crossed into Iraq.
Abdul-Rahman al-Chadrchi, a PKK spokesman in northern Iraq, denied there were any rebel casualties.
Journalists heading to the area by road were turned away at a military checkpoint. Much of the rural area along the border has already been declared off-limits by the Turkish military.
Some 15 Turkish shells hit Iraqi territory starting at about 7 a.m. Sunday, said Col. Hussein Rashid of the Iraqi border guard forces. The bombardment was concentrated in the Mateen mountain range in the Amadiyah area, 20 miles from the border.
Rashid said the villages were deserted because of the border tension.
The Iraqi region of Amadiyah is roughly opposite the Turkish town of Cukurca, in Hakkari province. Rebels are active near Cukurca, about 30 miles from the location where the soldiers died Sunday.
On Saturday, Erdogan said Turkey expected the United States to take action against the PKK but would take its own measures if it saw no results in the fight.
The U.S. lists the PKK as a terrorist organization and has condemned its attacks in Turkey. However, Washington has called on the Turkish government to work with the Iraqis.
Rebels periodically cross the border to stage attacks in their war for autonomy for Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast. More than 30,000 people have died in the conflict that began in 1984.