TUNCELI, Turkey (Reuters) – Four Turkish soldiers were killed in clashes with Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) guerrillas on Tuesday and Turkey sent hundreds of anti-terrorism special forces to the troubled region bordering Iraq.
Military sources said the special forces would join up to 100,000 Turkish troops near the border. Turkey has threatened an incursion into northern Iraq to root out PKK rebels who use mountains there as a base for attacks across the border.
It was not immediately clear whether the presence of the special forces in Sirnak and Hakkari provinces in southeast Turkey was linked to an offensive launched on Tuesday against PKK rebels following clashes, which left four soldiers dead.
Troops, backed by tanks, attack helicopters and fighter jets have been on standby for weeks in case NATO-member Turkey authorises an incursion.
Washington and Baghdad oppose a major cross-border offensive, fearing it could destabilise northern Iraq and potentially threaten the wider region.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, under intense domestic pressure to act after some 50 soldiers were killed in recent weeks, has pledged to send in troops into northern Iraq if PKK attacks from Iraq continue.
NTV Web site reported Erdogan as telling a meeting of his AK Party on Monday night “a cross-border operation is approaching”. The meeting was closed to the media.
“This business needs to happen before winter conditions worsen. If we don’t see concrete things from the other side an operation is near,” he said.
The death of the four soldiers in Sirnak province on Tuesday is likely to increase pressure on the government to authorise an operation, despite logistical difficulties as the weather closes in across the rugged mountainous region.
Security sources said nine others were injured in the Sirnak clashes, which lasted more than an hour.
President Abdullah Gul sent a message to armed forces chief General Yasar Buyukanit, conveying his condolences to the soldiers’ families, the military and the Turkish public.
They were the first casualties of the conflict on Turkish territory since November 7 when one soldier and three PKK guerrillas were killed in clashes.
Separately, the Kurdistan regional government in northern Iraq denied media reports that Turkish attack helicopters and warplanes seeking PKK rebels had bombed empty villages in the area on Tuesday morning.
Turkish broadcasters CNN Turk and NTV, citing Iraqi officials, reported that nobody was killed in the bombings.
Jamal Abdullah, a spokesman for the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government, said two Turkish warplanes had dropped flares as they flew over a village near Zakho in northern Iraq on Monday.
An estimated 3,000 rebels use northern Iraq as a base for attacks in Turkey. The PKK took up arms in 1984 with the aim of creating an ethnic homeland in mainly Kurdish southeast Turkey.
Nearly 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict.
Ankara claims the right of self-defence under international law to attack the PKK inside Iraqi territory and has staged limited cross-border operations against the PKK in the past.
After meeting U.S. President George W. Bush last week to discuss the issue, Erdogan said the army would go ahead with an incursion against the militants in Iraq, but did not say when.