ANKARA, Turkey – Turkish Cobra attack helicopters blasted suspected Kurdish rebel targets Tuesday near the southeastern border with Iraq in a second day of fighting in the area. The prime minister said an escalation of military action was unavoidable.
Three soldiers and six rebels have been killed in fighting, according to local news reports.
As the military pressure continued, the government called a Cabinet meeting for Wednesday to discuss possible economic measures against groups supporting the Kurdish rebels, private CNN-Turk and NTV television reported.
Turkey is reportedly considering a string of economic actions against the self-governing Kurdish administration in Iraq's north, where rebels are based. The region is heavily reliant on Turkish electricity and food imports, as well as Turkish investment in construction.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told his party members in Parliament that intensifying military action was "unavoidable," though he suggested he was not pushing for an immediate cross-border operation into northern Iraq.
"The responsibility of leadership does not allow for narrow-mindedness, haste or heroism," he said.
Erdogan flies to Washington on Nov. 5 for a meeting with President Bush that many believe will be key in determining whether Turkey carries out its threats of crossing the border in a major push against the rebels of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK.
The United States, Iraq, and other countries have been pressing Turkey to refrain from such a campaign, which could derail one of the few stable areas in Iraq and leave the United States in an awkward position with key allies: NATO-member Turkey, the Iraqi government and the self-governing Iraqi Kurds in the north.
Turkey has threatened to attack unless scores of PKK leaders are extradited from Iraq.
The prime minister called on U.S. forces in Iraq to crack down on rebel bases in the north of the country. "We expect the U.S. to urgently take concrete steps against terror bases," he said.
In an interview published Tuesday in Turkey's Milliyet newspaper, Massoud Barzani, the leader of Iraq's Kurdish region, called for a peaceful solution to the crisis and said that if the PKK did not give up violence, it would "confront not only Turkey but the whole Kurdish nation."
But he questioned Ankara's motives, suggesting that it was not only the PKK that Turkey was interested in targeting, but also the Iraqi Kurds.
He also criticized Turkey for rejecting contact with him in the past and now expecting him to lead a crackdown on the PKK.
"You do not consider me as your counterpart. You do not call me for a dialogue. And then you ask me to so something against the PKK. How can this be possible?" he said. "We, in turn, want assurances from Turkey that all these military measures are not against us."
The Turkish assault on the mountainside positions in Sirnak province began early Monday with helicopter rocket attacks. The Firat news agency, which the Turkish government says is a mouthpiece of the Kurdish rebels, said more than 30 Cobras were involved.
Transport helicopters flew in commando teams and trucks later drove more troops to the area.
The fighting went late into the night, and the Cobras resumed their aerial assaults early Tuesday morning. An AP Television News cameraman saw smoke rising from Mount Cudi in the aftermath.
Three soldiers were killed in the first day of fighting, according to the private Dogan News Agency and Hurriyet newspaper. Six rebels were also killed, the private Cihan news agency reported.
It was not immediately possible to independently verify the casualty reports.
One other soldier was killed Monday during operations in Tunceli province when he stepped on a land mine believed to have been hidden by the rebels, bringing the total number of people killed by the PKK in the past month to 46, according to government and media reports.
Those casualties included at least 30 Turkish soldiers killed in two ambushes that were the boldest attacks in years — increasing domestic pressure on Erdogan to act.