Kurdish Rebels Shoot Down Turkish Helicopter

Turkish troops pursued their new offensive against Kurdish rebel bases across the border in northern Iraq on Sunday. Heavy fighting left dozens dead, and the rebels — from the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK — shot down a Turkish helicopter.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

Turkish troops pursued their new offensive today against Kurdish rebel bases across the border in northern Iraq. There was heavy fighting leaving dozens dead and the rebels from the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, shot down a Turkish helicopter.

The Turkish government launched its offensive on Thursday after denouncing Iraq for failing to put down the PKK rebels, a group the United States and European Union consider a terrorist organization.

NPR's Ivan Watson has been following the story from Istanbul. Ivan, what can you tell us about the current situation and this helicopter being shot down?

IVAN WATSON: You know, we have ongoing clashes. The Turkish military says it lost at least eight soldiers in clashes on Iraqi territory today. That's in addition to at least seven soldiers that they say were killed in recent days. The Turks don't seem to have gone more than 20 miles into Iraqi territory. They still believe to be quite far from Iraqi Kurdish inhabited areas, which is perhaps helping to avoid conflict what the Iraqi Kurds. But the fighting with the PKK is fierce.

Yesterday the PKK claimed to have shot down a Turkish helicopter. A military source has confirmed that it went down, a COBRA helicopter, from hostile fire. And the Turkish military today said that it went down due to a breakdown. But it does show somewhat the capacity of the PKK to resist quite strongly described very remote, very difficult terrain.

LYDEN: You know, Ivan, this has been going on in terms of attention for a long time. Do the Turkish soldiers involved appear to be settling in for a long, drawn-out battle and do you known how many there might be?

WATSON: That's not really clear right now because we don't really have access to the battleground here. Both the Iraqi Kurds are keeping journalists back and the Turks do not let journalists get close across the border to this area.

I just spoke with a top Turkish government official who, on condition of anonymity, he said that the end game is the complete elimination of what he calls terror. The Turkish government and the U.S. government describe the PKK as a terrorist organization. They say they believe it's possible to eliminate all of the PKK's training camps and facilities in these remote mountains in northern Iraq.

And what's interesting about what the Turks are doing right now is, yes, they have been bombing from the air with helicopters and war planes and they have sent, by some indication, thousands of soldiers across the border. But they are limiting this scope in the area where this battle is taking place.

And they are keeping trade open with northern Iraq, with the Iraqi Kurds, and even flight to the Iraqi Kurdish city of Arbil while this is all taking place. They insist that the only target here is the PKK, not the Iraqi Kurds of northern Iraq. Of course, the Iraqi Kurds have a very different take on this.

Many of them are sympathetic to the PKK, these Kurdish rebels who are fighting for more freedom for the long oppressed Kurdish minority here in Turkey. And many Iraqi Kurds believed this is an attempt by the Turks to destabilize their region.

LYDEN: As you know this puts the United States in a difficult position, allied with Turkey but also with the Kurds in Northern Iraq. What diplomatic moves should we be looking for in the next few days?

WATSON: Well, the Turks said that they could send a delegation to Baghdad to talk with the Iraqi government. They say they're in daily contact with the Iraqis. And the U.S. appears to have given the green light on this operation. On the day it was announced the White House said that they had advanced warning on it.

The defense secretary, Mr. Gates, has called for its swift conclusion and he'll be visiting here in Ankara, the Turkish capital, in a couple of days.

LYDEN: NPR's Ivan Watson speaking to us from Istanbul. Thank you very much for joining us today.

WATSON: You're welcome, Jacki.

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