CIZRE, Turkey – Turkish warplanes and helicopter gunships reportedly pounded Kurdish rebel positions along the Turkey-Iraq border Wednesday, broadening military operations against insurgents amid persistent fears Turkey will launch a major offensive inside Iraq.
Turkish Cabinet members and military generals held a six-hour meeting in Ankara to discuss a possible operation in northern Iraq, but decided to recommend the government take economic measures first to force cooperation by Iraqis against Kurdish rebels.
The state-run Anatolia news agency reported that Turkish warplanes and attack helicopters bombed mountain paths used by rebels to cross the porous border from Iraq and stage hit-and-run attacks against soldiers in southeastern Turkey.
Residents in the Iraqi Kurdish village of Derishkit told an Associated Press reporter that two Turkish jet fighters struck a target on the banks of the Zey-Gowra River about four miles inside Iraq. They were unable to offer any more details about the apparent attack.
An AP Television News cameraman also saw eight F-16s loaded with bombs and attack helicopters take off after nightfall from a base in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir. The cameraman also saw about a dozen transport helicopters fly along Mount Cudi near the border with Iraq and at least one warplane fly past Cizre, a town close to the border.
The Anatolia news agency report said the warplanes and helicopters took off from Diyarbakir and “are reported to have bombed and destroyed bases of the terrorists.”
Pentagon officials declined to confirm reports of airstrikes.
“I don’t know of any Turkish airstrikes in that area today,” Maj. Gen. Richard Sherlock, Joint Chiefs of Staff operational planning director, told a Defense Department press conference.
The reported airstrikes come after days of Turkish shelling in the region. On Sunday, Turkish helicopter gunships penetrated Iraqi territory after Kurdish rebels ambushed a Turkish military convoy near the border, killing 12 soldiers and leaving eight others missing.
U.S.-made Cobra and Super Cobra attack helicopters also chased Kurdish rebels three miles into Iraqi territory on Sunday before returning to their bases in Turkey, a government official said Wednesday on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Turkey, which has moved troops to the Iraq border, warned Iraq and Western allies on Tuesday that a large-scale incursion was imminent unless the U.S.-backed government in Baghdad takes action against the rebels. The Turkish government said there would be no cease-fire with the fighters, who seek autonomy in Turkey’s heavily Kurdish southeast.
After the meeting Wednesday, Cabinet officials and military leaders decided to recommend the government “to first take necessary economic measures against those groups directly or indirectly supporting the separatist terrorist organization in the region,” a statement said.
The target of the economic measures was not made clear in the statement, but Turkey has been pondering sanctions to force the Iraqi Kurds to cooperate in its fight against the separatist rebels of PKK, the acronym of Kurdistan Workers’ Party.
The self-ruling Kurdish administration in Iraq’s north has benefited from Turkish investment for construction works, including airports and housing projects. Ankara is also selling electricity to northern Iraq, and much of the imported food and other supplies comes from Turkey.
In the Netherlands, Pentagon chief Robert Gates also said he saw little sense in airstrikes or major ground assaults by U.S., Turkish, or other forces against rebels in northern Iraq until more is known about their locations along the border.
“Without good intelligence, just sending large numbers of troops across the border (from Turkey) or dropping bombs doesn’t seem to make much sense to me,” Gates said.
Turkey’s military and civilian leaders face growing demands at home to stage an offensive in northern Iraq, where the PKK rebels rest, train and get supplies in relative safety before heading to Turkey to conduct attacks.
Turkey has long pressed Iraq to capture and extradite Kurdish rebel leaders.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki also has ordered the closure of all PKK offices in Iraq and said they would not be allowed to operate in Iraqi territory. In addition, the U.S. on Tuesday issued its most direct demand yet for anti-rebel measures from the government of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region.
About 100 members of the official defense forces of Iraq’s Kurdish region were headed Wednesday for a camp near the border city of Dahuk, 260 miles northwest of Baghdad.
One of them, who would only identify himself as Capt. Ziad, said his troops had been mobilized from Irbil, capital of the autonomous Kurdish region. “We want to prevent the conflict in Turkey from coming across the border,” he said.