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Turkish Troops Hunt Kurdish Rebels in Iraq

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Turkish troops, backed by tanks and warplanes, moved into northern Iraq on Friday to hunt down Kurdish separatist guerrillas of the PKK, who have been launching raids into Turkey from Iraqi territory. Turkey says the guerrillas are their only target. It's unclear how many troops are involved.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

Turkish troops and tanks crossed into Northern Iraq today. The Turkish forces are pursuing separatist rebels from the Kurdistan Worker's Party, or PKK. The rebels have been operating out of camps in the mountains on the Iraqi side of the border.

As NPR's Ivan Watson reports from Istanbul, the Turkish ground operation is escalating tensions with the Iraqi Kurds who govern the region.

IVAN WATSON: Turkish television broadcast images of helicopters carrying Turkish soldiers over the snowy mountains that divide Turkey and Iraq.

(Soundbite of helicopter flying overhead)

WATSON: Turkish news channels also broadcast wall-to-wall footage of columns of Turkish military trucks headed towards the border, as well as video of these Turkish soldiers marching up steep hills through deep snow.

In a statement on its Web site, the Turkish military said its cross-border ground operation began at 7 p.m. on Thursday. The goal is to, quote, "neutralize members of the terrorist organization, the PKK, in Northern Iraq." Only then, the statement concluded, would the armed forces return to Turkish territory.

Today, a PKK spokesman reported fierce clashes between the guerillas and Turkish troops. It's not clear how many Turkish soldiers have crossed the border. Turkish media put the figure at around 10,000. But Iraqi and U.S. military officials in Baghdad said, a few hundred Turks had entered Iraqi territory.

Iraqi Kurdish officials said the incursions have taken place in remote mountain areas where there are almost no inhabitants. The Turks' ground operations began after hours of intense cross-border shelling and airstrikes.

Safin Dizai, an Iraqi Kurdish diplomat in Northern Iraq, criticized one bombing run by Turkish war planes which he says destroyed at least three Iraqi bridges.

Mr. SAFIN DIZAI (Senior Official, Iraqi Kurdistan Democratic Party): Targeting the infrastructure of Kurdistan region is something which we cannot accept. And we hope that this will be the end of that and there will be no further provocations.

WATSON: Dizai says tensions almost boiled over at at least one location yesterday when Iraqi Kurdish militiamen surrounded and stopped a column of Turkish soldiers who had moved out of a reconnaissance base that they've longed maintained inside Iraq.

Mr. DIZAI: Yesterday, about early evening, these tanks and troops who rapidly got out of the base with the aim of controlling certain positions and locations and setting up the roadblocks and the routes between some areas of settlement. This was not accepted, of course, by our administration. And the message was very clear that they should avoid in intervening in the region.

WATSON: Kurdish officials say the Turks finally returned to their base after a tense standoff that lasted several hours. The Iraqi Kurds are accusing the Turks of using their campaign against PKK rebels as a pretext for threatening Iraqi Kurdistan. While Turkey was quick to recognize Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia this week, it has long adamantly opposed any move towards independence by the Iraqi Kurds.

Today, a White House spokesman announced Turkey gave Washington advanced warning that this ground offensive would take place. But American officials are also publicly urging their NATO ally to bring this operation to a swift conclusion.

Ivan Watson, NPR News, Istanbul.

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Turkish Troops Enter Iraq in Major Incursion

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A Turkish soldier patrols an area near Sirnak. i

A Turkish soldier patrols an area near Sirnak. "The target, purpose, size and parameters of this operation are limited," Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said. STR/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption STR/AFP/Getty Images
A Turkish soldier patrols an area near Sirnak.

A Turkish soldier patrols an area near Sirnak. "The target, purpose, size and parameters of this operation are limited," Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

Thousands of Turkish troops have crossed the border into northern Iraq in pursuit of Kurdish rebels, the military said Friday, in an operation officials said would last 15 days.

Turkish television placed the size of the force at 10,000 and said it had penetrated six miles into Iraqi territory. The Turkish military said its ground assault would be supported by warplanes.

Later, private broadcaster CNN Turk quoted security sources as saying the military ground offensive against the PKK rebels was planned to last 15 days.

The incursion, which Turkey has said is aimed only at the separatists, is the first such operation since Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003. Despite Turkey's assurances, it raises concerns about triggering a wider conflict in the region.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the United States "wants the Turkish government to bring any ongoing operations to a swift conclusion." Meanwhile, the White House said it a statement it wanted to see "precise" targeting of the PKK, so as to avoid civilian casualties.

Turkey has conducted air raids against PKK guerrillas in northern Iraq since December, with the help of U.S. intelligence. It has periodically carried out so-called "hot pursuits," in which Turkish forces are given the green light to cross the border in small units for a limited amount of time.

The Kurdish militants are fighting for autonomy in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast, and have carried out attacks on Turkish targets from bases in northern Iraq. The United States and the European Union consider the PKK to be a terrorist organization.

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