ANKARA (AFP) – Turkish troops entered northern Iraq to hunt separatist Kurdish rebels after fighter jets struck at their bases, the Turkish army said Friday.
The army gave no details on the scale of the operation, but the NTV news channel said 10,000 troops penetrated 10 kilometers (six miles) into the autonomous Kurdish north of Iraq.
This was the second ground operation into northern Iraq confirmed by the military since October when the government won parliamentary approval to enter Iraq to attack Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants based there.
The operation started late Thursday when tanks were reported heading for the mountainous frontier which is gripped by sub-zero winter temperatures.
The army said the incursion followed eight hours of air and artillery strikes on PKK camps camps across the border on Thursday.
“Following this successful offensive, a cross-border ground operation backed by the Air Force was launched at 7:00 pm (1700 GMT),” said an army statement posted on the general staff Internet site.
The army said troops “will return home as soon as possible after acheiving their planned objective of incapacitating members of the terror organization and destroying their infrastructure.”
In Brussels, the European Commission urged Turkey to refrain from any “disproportionate military action” and said it was watching events in northern Iraq “closely”.
“The European Union understands Turkey’s need to protect itself,” Commission spokeswoman Kristina Nagy told reporters.
Since October, the Turkish army has been building up tens of thousands of forces along border with Iraq and has carried out several air strikes on rebel targets since December 16.
On December 18, the army said that it had conducted a small ground incursion to stop PKK rebels from infiltrating Turkey.
The Anatolia news agency reported that several warplanes took off a military airport in Diyarbakir in southeast Turkey on Friday while helicopters could be seen flying over the border.
Troop reinforcements were being deployed close to the border in a bid to stop PKK militants from infiltrating Turkey while tanks could be seen moving towards northern Iraq at the Habur border crossing, the agency said.
Iraq’s Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari denied a large-scale Turkish raid had been launched, but said there had been intense Turkish air and artillery strikes.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul informed his Iraqi counterpart Jalal Talabani about the offensive in a telephone call Thursday night, the government said.
“During the call, our president conveyed information on the objective of the ground operation which began Thursday night,” Gul’s office said, adding that Gul underlined Turkey’s intention to boost bilateral ties with Iraq and invited Talabani to Turkey.
The army statement highligted that Turkish armed forces “attach special importance to Iraq’s territorial integrity and stability” and said the incursion targeted only the PKK.
The army will “demonstrate the care required to avoid any adverse effects on civilians and local elements not hostile to the Turkish Forces,” said the statement.
“It is believed that the operation will prevent the region from being used by the terrorists as a permanent safe haven and thus contribute to domestic peace and stability in Iraq,” it added.
The US military in Iraq called the Turkish incursion “an operation of limited duration to specifically target PKK terrorists in that region.”
“Turkey has given its assurances it will do everything possible to avoid collateral damage to innocent civilians or Kurdish infrastructure,” Rear Admiral Gregory Smith said in a statement to AFP.
“The United States continues to support Turkey’s right to defend itself from the terrorist activities of the PKK,” he added,
PKK spokesman Ahmet Danis said “a large number” of Turkish soldiers were moving in the area where the borders of Iran, Turkey and Iraq meet.
He also claimed that the fighting had left two Turkish soldiers dead and eight wounded and said there were no PKK casualties.
The PKK, listed as a terrorist group by Ankara and much of the international community has waged a violent 23-year campaign for self-rule in southeast Turkey. The conflict has claimed more than 37,000 lives.
Turkey says an estimated 4,000 PKK rebels enjoy refuge in northern Iraq and use the region as a springboard for attacks on Turkish territory.