ISTANBUL // Turkish troops entered neighbouring Iraq yesterday in pursuit of Kurdish rebels who killed 24 soldiers in coordinated attacks in south-eastern Turkey.
"A wide-ranging operation, including operations of hot pursuit according to international law, is taking place at the moment," Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, said in a televised statement in Ankara. The term "hot pursuit" is used by Turkish officials to describe operations of Turkish troops hunting Kurdish rebels on Iraqi territory.
The prime minister spoke after simultaneous attacks by the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a Kurdish rebel group that has been fighting against Ankara since 1984 and listed as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the EU and the US.
Mr Erdogan said 24 soldiers were killed and another 18 wounded. The toll was the heaviest loss for the army in a single PKK operation since 1993, when the rebels killed 33 unarmed soldiers. About 100 PKK fighters were involved in the latest attacks, Turkish state television reported.
Mr Erdogan underlined that Turkey would not give in to terror and said his country expected "complete solidarity and active support" from the international community after the death of its soldiers.
In a series of attacks in eight different locations that started in the early hours yesterday, the PKK members simultaneously opened fire on several military outposts in the south-eastern province of Hakkari. The attacks were concentrated on the towns of Cukurca and Yuksekova. Firatnews.com, a pro-PKK news website, quoted rebel sources as saying that up to 50 soldiers had been killed.
After the attacks, the rebels withdrew to northern Iraq. The PKK has been directing its attacks in Turkey from a hideout in the Kandil mountains, about 100 kilometres south of the Turkish border in Iraq, since 1999. In the last comprehensive Turkish incursion into Iraq three years ago, Ankara sent several thousand soldiers over the border to destroy PKK arms depots and communication facilities.
Abdullah Gul, Turkey's president, told reporters that Turkey's "pain is huge" after the attacks. He hinted at a Turkish military operation in south-eastern Anatolia and in Iraq. "The revenge for the attacks will be immense," Mr Gul said.
The US president, Barack Obama, yesterday condemned what he called an "outrageous terrorist attack" by PKK Kurdish rebels
"The United States will continue our strong cooperation with the Turkish government as it works to defeat the terrorist threat from the PKK and to bring peace, stability and prosperity to all the people of south-east Turkey," Mr Obama said.
Several hundred Turkish soldiers, supported by helicopters, were reported to be involved in the "hot pursuit" operation in northern Iraq. "Turkish ground forces are attempting to cross the Iraqi border at Jeli, in the Hakkari region" of south-east Turkey, Dozdar Hammo, a PKK spokesman, told the AFP news agency.
Referring to the situation in northern Iraq, a foreign ministry source said shortly after noon yesterday that "military activity has already started". But government officials did not say whether Turkey was preparing for a large ground assault against the PKK in Iraq.
Mr Erdogan and several of his ministers cancelled foreign trips to prepare a response to the attacks. Gen Necdet Ozel, the general chief of staff, and several high-ranking officers rushed to south-eastern Turkey. Turkish artillery pounded suspected PKK camps in Iraq while fighter jets attacked rebel installations in Iraq from the air.
Several hundred demonstrators took to the streets in several Turkish cities to protest against the PKK. A group that included students, women and elderly people marched to an army office on the Asian side of Istanbul and asked to be taken on as soldiers. Turkey's parliament will convene today for a closed-door session to discuss the attacks and possible responses.
Some news reports said Turkish troops went up to four kilometres into Iraq. The Turkish daily Hurriyet reported on its website that clashes broke out between Turkish troops and retreating PKK fighters in northern Iraq. There was no confirmation.
Faced with an escalation of PKK action in the last several months, Mr Erdogan's government has ordered air attacks in Iraq and has hinted at a new intervention by ground forces into the neighbouring country. Two weeks ago, Turkey's parliament extended a mandate for cross-border incursions by the armed forces.
Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey's foreign minister, said last week that Iraq's government should move to prevent Kurdish attacks on his country from Iraq. Mr Davutoglu told Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraqi foreign minister, in Ankara that Turkey's patience was running out and that it was determined to eradicate the PKK threat from northern Iraq.
"We no longer have patience for terrorist activity directed toward Turkey from Iraqi soil," Mr Davutoglu said.
The multiple attacks in Hakkari came one day after eight other people, among them a four-year-old child, were killed by a suspected PKK roadside bomb in south-eastern Anatolia.
Armagan Kuloglu, a retired Turkish general, told the Turkish news channel NTV that the PKK was trying to gain the initiative in the region and to demonstrate to Ankara and the local population that it could act with impunity in the area. "It wasn't the first such attack and probably not the last", he said.
Gen Kuloglu noted that Mr Gul, the president, had visited the area of the attacks several days ago in a trip that had been meant as a morale-booster for troops stationed in the region.
Mesut Barzani, president of the Kurdish region in northern Iraq, called Mr Erdogan to express his condolences. According to Turkish news reports, Mr Barzani said the attacks had targetted "Turkish-Kurdish brotherhood".
The attacks also coincided with the start of talks between political parties about a new constitution that started in Ankara yesterday. Cemil Cicek, the parliamentary speaker who chaired the talks, said negotiations had begun "under a shadow".
A new constitution is expected to widen individual rights for Turks, and observers in Turkey have expressed hope that the new text could also help to solve the Kurdish conflict. Mr Erdogan said yesterday human rights and democracy were the "antidote against terror".
But he also called on the opposition Party for Peace and Democracy (BDP), Turkey's biggest legal Kurdish party, to distance itself from the PKK. The BDP, which takes part in the constitutional talks, said it regretted the loss of life during the latest attacks and called on both the PKK and the Turkish state to stop military operations.
With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse