Turkish troops crossed the border into Iraq Friday in pursuit of separatist Kurdish rebels, the Turkish military announced. It is a move that escalates Turkey's on-going conflict with rebel forces.
Kurdish militants are fighting for autonomy in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast.
They have carried out attacks on Turkish targets from sanctuaries in northern Iraq. The U.S. and the European Union consider Kurdistan Workers' Party, or the PKK, a terrorist organization.
It is the first confirmed ground incursion by the Turkish military into Iraq since 2003, which raises concerns of a wider conflict with the U.S.-backed Iraqi Kurds.
Turkey Receiving U.S. Intelligence
The ground operation started after Turkish warplanes and artillery bombed suspected rebel targets on Thursday, the military said on its Web site. The ground incursion was backed by the Air Force.
With the help of U.S. intelligence, Turkey has conducted air raids against the PKK guerrillas in northern Iraq since December.
"The Turkish Armed Forces, which values Iraq's territorial integrity and its stability, will return as soon as planned goals are achieved," military officials said. "The executed operation will prevent the region from being a permanent and safe base for the terrorists and will contribute to Iraq's stability and internal peace."
Private NTV television said 10,000 troops were taking part in the offensive and had penetrated six miles into Iraq.
CNN-Turk television quoted Deputy Prime Minister Hayati Yazici as saying the Habur border gate was not closed due to the operation. Priority was being given to Turkish military vehicles. Trucks routinely carry supplies bound for U.S. military bases in Iraq through the Habur crossing.
Strike Made Before a PKK Spring Offensive?
Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, a U.S. spokesman in Iraq, said the military had received assurances from its NATO ally Turkey that it would do everything possible to avoid "collateral damage" to innocent civilians or infrastructure.
"Multi-National Forces-Iraq is aware Turkish ground forces have entered into northern Iraq, for what we understand is an operation of limited duration to specifically target PKK terrorists in that region," Smith said in a statement.
"The United States continues to support Turkey's right to defend itself from the terrorist activities of the PKK and has encouraged Turkey to use all available means, to include diplomacy and close coordination with the Government of Iraq to ultimately resolve this issue," he added.
Nihat Ali Ozcan, a terrorism expert with the research center TEPAV, appeared on CNN-Turk television and said the operation was timed to keep the PKK on the defensive.
"I think it is aimed to keep the PKK under pressure before the group starts entering Turkey," he said.
Source: The Associated Press