Turkey Bombs Rebel Kurds' Hideouts

Dozens of Turkish planes were bombing mountain hideouts of the rebel Kurdish organization, the PKK, over the weekend. The attack, 60 miles inside Iraq, lasted for three hours. This appears to be the most intense cross-border attack launched by the Turks since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

Over the weekend, dozens of Turkish planes were in action over northern Iraq, bombing mountain hideouts of the rebel Kurdish organization, the PKK. The attack lasted for three hours. It appears to be the most intense cross-border attack launched by the Turks since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

We go now to NPR's Ivan Watson in Istanbul.

Ivan, what is the Turkish government saying about this attack?

IVAN WATSON: Well, it's saying it's part of its campaign to destroy what it calls a terrorist organization, the Kurdish separatist movement, the PKK.

And so what we saw before dawn on Sunday was a pretty significant air strikes carried out across the border, deep into Iraqi territory, more than a hundred miles into Iraqi territory.

We've seen over the past several months the Turks carrying out artillery strikes, reports of helicopter attacks. But this is definitely an escalation.

YDSTIE: Any more details on yesterday's operation? Who did they succeed in hitting?

WATSON: Well, the PKK has responded by saying that five of its fighters were killed. And we also have reports from the ground of at least one Iraqi Kurdish civilian woman killed. Some photos have emerged in that. They are of villages that were basically reduced to rubble.

It's really important to point out that the PKK are a rebel organization, very lightly armed. They don't have tanks or heavy artillery. They don't have an extensive infrastructure. And they operate in very remote, very rugged mountains and valleys.

So you're not talking about a fixed military barracks by any means; you're talking about a couple of campsites where the PKK fighters live and operate. They use these as rear bases where they treat their wounded and do some training and some political work, especially during the winter months, as they prepare for warmer weather when they cross the border and engage with the Turkish military on Turkish territory.

YDSTIE: Now, a Turkish general has said that the U.S. government provided intelligence and gave tacit approval for this attack. What do we know about that?

WATSON: Well, the U.S. controls Iraqi airspace so you could not have had a large movement of war planes across the border without American permission. And, in fact, this top Turkish general, Yasar Buyukanit - he said, quote, "What is important is that the U.S. opened the airspace over northern Iraq. By opening the airspace, the U.S. gave support to our operation."

This same general has criticized his American NATO ally in the past for not doing enough to help the Turks fight against the PKK. That changed when there was a meeting between President Bush and the Turkish prime minister in Washington in early November.

And at that meeting, there seems to have been an agreement. President Bush promised to provide some real-time intelligence sharing and more cooperation. And I think we've seen evidence of that over the weekend.

YDSTIE: How serious a threat is the PKK to Turkey?

WATSON: Well, this war has been going on since the early '80s. The numbers of lives claimed, mostly Kurdish, are more than 30,000 people. The PKK say they're fighting for the rights of the long-oppressed Kurdish minority here. Most of the fighting takes place on Turkish territory and we hear about several soldiers killed every week.

The PKK are really determined fighters. The Iraqi Kurds are scared of this rebel group. And I think one of the questions will be, could the Americans, now, in northern Iraq become a legitimate target of the PKK?

Not a single American soldier has been killed in Iraqi-Kurdistan since the U.S. invasion. The PKK do operate around there. Could they seek to retaliate now, not only against the Turks on the Turkish side of the border - but now, see, the American troops, that come through northern Iraq, as a legitimate target?

YDSTIE: NPR's Ivan Watson in Istanbul. Thanks very much, Ivan.

WATSON: You're welcome, John.

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