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LIANE HANSEN, host:

From NPR News in Washington, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

Things are heating up along the border between Iraq and Turkey. At least 12 Turkish soldiers were killed overnight in a clash with Kurdish rebels. It was more than just the latest strike by the Kurdish separatist group, the PKK. It was the first such attack since Wednesday, when Turkey's parliament authorized troops to conduct cross-border incursions into Iraq to hunt down the Kurdish guerrillas. The fighting has continued today. The Turkish military says it killed 23 rebels in a counter-offensive.

NPR's Ivan Watson is in Istanbul.

Ivan, first of all, what have you learned about the Kurdish attack and the Turkish counter-offensive?

IVAN WATSON: Well, the Turks say that a column of their soldiers were ambushed, Liane, near the border town of Dacliga overnight - that a bridge was destroyed and a number of Turkish soldiers were killed outright in this ambush, and that this took place within 10 miles of the border with Iraq. And the fighting continued throughout the day today around this border area with Turkish attack helicopters being called in for backup.

In addition to this, midday on Sunday, a landmine in the same town of Dacliga blew up, hitting a minivan loaded with civilian passengers, wounding at least a dozen people. This is certainly the fiercest fighting we've seen in years between the Turks and the PKK.

HANSEN: There are reports that the Kurdish rebels have taken several Turkish soldiers hostage. Can you confirm that?

WATSON: Well, we had reports in the Turkish media of at least 10 Turkish soldiers missing. And within the last couple of hours, a PKK spokesman named Abdul-Rahman Chadrchi has called an Iraqi who works for NPR in Northern Iraq. And he announced that the PKK had captured an unspecified number of Turkish soldiers and killed and injured many more. He also claimed that, in fact, the fighting began when Turkish soldiers entered Northern Iraq overnight and this PKK spokesman claimed that the PKK has been fighting in self-defense since then.

HANSEN: What kind of position does this put Turkey in now?

WATSON: Well, the Turkish president, the prime minister and the top army general are all rushing in from around the world, really, to Ankara - the Turkish capital - for an emergency security summit. They have made calls for unity now - given the high number of Turkish casualties over the past day. And they have also made statements to the effect of, the Turks have to be clever now to avoid rushing into a PKK trap.

At the same time, they are under intense pressure to take action. At least 40 Turkish soldiers and civilians have been killed in the last month in clashes with the PKK. And as you mentioned before, the Turkish parliament just passed a bill to authorize the military to send troops to attack PKK bases in the mountains of Northern Iraq. There's going to be a lot of calls from Turkish society to now make good on that threat.

HANSEN: You've reported quite a bit from the border area. You've met some of the PKK leaders. Give us a little context. What's your impression of the leadership and how do these guerrillas operate?

WATSON: Well, the PKK consists from Kurds from across the Middle East - from Iran, Turkey, Syria and Iraq, but mostly from Turkey. They operate in cells in Southeastern Turkey, that's a predominantly Kurdish area. Living off the land and periodically clashing with Turkish security forces, they also maintain bases in these very hard to reach mountains on the Iraqi side of the border. And that's where they do to some of their training and recruiting and where they treat some of their wounded. And that's a place where the PKK rebels can retreat to during the cold winter months when snows fill in the passes. And then they go back into Turkey then, during the warm months, to conduct more operations and clash with the Turkish security forces.

They're very disciplined. They're very committed, some would argue somewhat brainwashed. Their ideology is a mix of Kurdish nationalism to carve out a Kurdish homeland in the Middle East and also Marxism. And sometimes you kind of get the feeling they're not exactly sure what they're fighting for now that the cold war is over and now that some reforms have come through and you have now 20 members of a Kurdish nationalist party that are now in the Turkish parliament in Ankara.

HANSEN: And in the minute we have left, if Turkey launches an offensive, how does that affect the war effort in Iraq and what kind of policy options would the U.S. have?

WATSON: Well, it puts the U.S. in a very difficult position because this fighting threatens to engulf the calmest part of Iraq. That's the Kurdish-controlled north where there are almost no American soldiers and where it's ruled by Iraqi Kurds. The fear is that this could open up a northern front in the conflict and it could pit two American allies - the Turks and the Iraqi Kurds against each other. Today, the Iraq Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, he said, quote, "we are not going to be caught up in a PKK and the Turkish war. But if our region of Kurdistan is targeted by the Turks, then we are going to defend our citizens." So the fear is that the Turkish PKK conflict could spread and bring in the Iraqi Kurds who are also - who also view the Turks as an enemy.

HANSEN: NPR's Ivan Watson, speaking with us from Istanbul.

Ivan, thank you very much.

WATSON: You're welcome, Liane.

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