(AFP) – May 10, 2008
ANKARA (AFP) — At least 19 Kurdish rebels and six soldiers were killed overnight in clashes and a bombing raid in southeastern Turkey, the Turkish military said Saturday.
It also reported disarray within the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) after Turkish air strikes on its positions in neighbouring northern Iraq last week, with several leaders allegedly abandoning their mountain hideouts and many militants fleeing their camps.
In the latest episode of violence, the rebels attacked a military outpost in the province of Hakkari, which borders Iraq and Iran, late Friday, killing two soldiers, the army said in a statement posted on its website.
Turkish warplanes bombed the area in response, killing at least 19 militants, it said, adding in a second statement that another four soldiers died in ensuing clashes as the army pursued the rebels on the ground.
The attack on the military outpost was carried out "to change the atmosphere of panic" among PKK ranks that followed Turkish air raids on rebel positions in northern Iraq last week that "dealt the terrorist organisation a serious blow," it said.
The military has said that more than 150 militants were killed in the raid in the Qandil mountains, a major PKK stronghold along the Iraqi-Iranian border, on May 1-2.
Saturday's statement said many of the some 200 militants believed to remain based in Qandil had laid down their arms after the strike and fled deeper into northern Iraq, dispersing in settlements in the region, which is run by the Iraqi Kurds.
"This development clearly shows that the organisation is in an atmosphere of great panic and demoralisation," it said.
Senior PKK commander Cemil Bayik sneaked into a neighbouring country together with a large group of militants, which engaged in clashes with local security forces, the statement said.
It did not name the country, but it appears to be Iran, which is fighting its own Kurdish militants, who are associated with the PKK and also take refuge in the Qandil mountains.
Many of Bayik's bodyguards were killed but his fate remains unknown, the statement said.
Another PKK commander, Bahoz Erdal, and a third who was not named also fled their hideouts and moved to locations they consider to be safer, it said.
The PKK, however, denied that rebel units in northern Iraq were disintegrating and that Bayik had fled.
"No one has run away. There is no climate of panic," the pro-PKK news agency Firat quoted a senior rebel, Zubeyir Aydar, as saying. "The statement of the general staff is entirely a lie."
Listed as a terrorist group by Turkey and much of the international community, the PKK has been fighting for self-rule in Turkey's mainly Kurdish southeast since 1984. The conflict has claimed more than 37,000 lives.
Turkey has stepped up military action against the group since December, carrying out several air strikes and a week-long ground incursion into northern Iraq in February, where it says more than 2,000 PKK rebels take refuge.
The United States, which like Turkey lists the PKK as a terrorist group, has backed its NATO ally's military action in Iraq by providing intelligence on PKK movements there.
Turkey has also revived dialogue with the Kurdish administration of northern Iraq, whom it has long accused of tolerating and even aiding the PKK, in a bid to enlist their cooperation against the rebels.
The Turkish government has a one-year parliamentary authorisation for cross-border military action against the PKK, which expires in October.
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