ANKARA, Turkey – Attack helicopters buzzed over a hilly region in southeastern Turkey on Sunday looking for Kurdish rebels after troops reportedly killed 15 separatist guerrillas in a morning operation far from the increasingly tense border with Iraq.
The fighting occurred in the predominantly Kurdish province of Tunceli, as the government pressed on with its efforts against the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK, whose fighters have killed at least 42 people in the past month in raids on Turkish territory.
Turkey has threatened to send troops into Iraq to hunt down the rebels, and has demanded the extradition of PKK leaders. The United States, Iraq and other countries have been pressing for Turkey to refrain from cross-border operations.
The top American commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, said Sunday the U.S. military was playing a role in trying to defuse the tensions, but he declined to elaborate.
“I am actually not going to say anything about what we may be doing with our long-standing NATO allies Turkey, although we clearly are doing things with them,” he said.
The comments seemed aimed at allaying Turkish frustration, piqued on Friday when the American military commander in northern Iraq, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, said he planned to do “absolutely nothing” to counter Kurdish rebels operating from the region.
Before the fighting in Tunceli, the Turkish military blocked roads into the region with armored personnel carriers and soldiers. By afternoon, long lines of trucks were backed up waiting to get through.
Tunceli is some 340 miles northeast of the province of Sirnak and 400 miles northeast of the province of Hakkari, the places where most of the recent fighting with the rebels has taken place. Sirnak and Hakkari border Iraq.
Fifteen rebels were killed in the operation, according to the private Dogan news agency, which was at the scene.