Turkish soldiers, tanks and jets crossed into northern Iraq Wednesday to root Kurdish guerrillas from the mountain hideouts they use to stage hit-and-run attacks on sites in southeastern Turkey.
The troops began streaming into Iraq at the border town of Habur at dawn, Turkish TV stations reported. Jets bombed at least five separate rebel bases, according to the official Anatolia news agency.
Military spokesman Cole Husnu Dag described the offensive as “a small-scale, short-term operation.”
Dag refused to say how many soldiers were involved, but told The Associated Press that the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party’s claim of 50,000 soldiers and 350 tanks was exaggerated.
The government provided no casualty figures for the assault, the latest in a series of cross-border attacks by Turkey aimed at the autonomy-seeking Turkish Kurdish rebels of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK.
Trucks carrying tanks and other military equipment traveled the back roads near Habur, and nearby lots that witnesses said were full of tanks last week were empty Wednesday. Hundreds of tents lined the main road, many bearing the symbol of the Red Crescent, the Muslim equivalent of the Red Cross, indicating they were to serve as hospitals.
Iraq condemned the offensive, but there was little it could do. The area is under the control of Iraqi Kurdish groups and kept out of Baghdad’s reach by a U.S.-led allied air force.
The official Iraqi News Agency quoted an unidentified official as saying the “invading troops” heavily damaged the border towns of Zakho and Imadiya. The official called for immediate withdrawal.
“This aggression contradicts Turkey’s pledge go respect Iraq’s sovereignty and integrity and also the principle of good neighborliness,” the news agency quoted the official as saying.
The PKK has an estimated 10,000 fighters in the mountains of southeastern Turkey and in northern Iraq. They apparently had been fighting an Iraqi Kurdish opposition group that controls the border area.
Defense Minister Turhan Tayan said the Turkish troops went into northern Iraq to help the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which Tayan said was trying to protect the local population from PKK “harassment.”
Turkey insists the Iraqi Kurds keep the Turkish Kurds away from Turkey’s border as a condition for allowing the U.S.-led air force to operate from a base in Turkey.
Iraqi Kurds established a de facto state in northern Iraq after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. U.S. planes patrol the skies over the region to protect the Kurds from attack by Saddam Hussein’s military. The lack of Iraqi authority in the region allows the Turkish military to come and go at will.
David Welch, a U.S. acting assistant secretary of state said the United States “understood Turkey’s right of self-defense.”
Welch, who is holding talks in Ankara with the KDP and its Iraqi Kurdish rival, the Iran-backed Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, told reporters the two factions had agreed to work together to prevent Turkish Kurdish rebels from having a presence in the region.