CUKURCA, Turkey – Turkey's military said Monday it had killed 41 more separatist Kurdish rebels in clashes in northern Iraq, raising the reported guerrilla death toll in a cross-border operation to 153. Rebels disputed the claim and warned that Turkey had entered a conflict that it cannot win.
A statement posted on the military's Web site also said two more soldiers were killed in fighting, but gave no details. The deaths would bring the total Turkish military fatalities since the start of the incursion Thursday to 17. It said the military had hit some 30 targets of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK in a 24-hour period.
The military did not say whether it had counted the bodies of the slain rebels, and there was no way to independently verify the claim.
In past clashes, Turkish troops have sometimes left the bodies of guerrillas in the remote areas where they were killed, fearing they could be booby trapped. Turkish fatalities are easier to document because slain soldiers receive elaborate burials that are usually attended by officials and military officers.
The rebels said Turkey could not win the conflict.
"They have stepped into a quagmire, they are trying to set themselves free," Firat, a pro-Kurdish news agency, quoted PKK commander Bahoz Erdal as saying.
Havaw Ruaj, a PKK spokesman, said four PKK fighters have been killed and eight others wounded in cross-border fighting. Firat carried a rebel claim that 81 Turkish soldiers had died.
Rebels clashed with troops at the al-Zab border area but heavy snow on Monday hampered movement by the Turks and bad weather caused fewer flights by Turkish jets and helicopters, Ruaj said.
He said Turkish troops were as far as 15 kilometers (9 miles) inside Iraqi territory at some points. Turkey's NTV television said soldiers were 25 kilometers (15 miles) inside Iraq.
"We are using guerrilla fighting techniques and not fighting as one fixed front," Ruaj said. Turkish troops fired dozens of salvos of artillery shells at suspected rebel hideouts Monday and clashed with the rebels in four parts of northern Iraq, the military said. It did not specify the locations. It said troops were destroying rebel shelters, logistics centers and ammunition. Retreating rebels were setting booby traps under the corpses of dead comrades or planting mines on escape routes, it said.
The sound of artillery fire could be heard in the border town of Cukurca. Several military bases that support Turkey's ground incursion into northern Iraq are on its outskirts, and artillery units have been positioned on hilltops overlooking Iraq.
Turkey began the operation to curb the rebels' ability to attack Turkish targets from hideouts on the Iraqi side of the border. It is the first confirmed Turkish military ground operation in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Rebels are fighting for autonomy in predominantly Kurdish southeastern Turkey and have carried out attacks in Turkey from bases in the semiautonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq. The conflict started in 1984 and has killed up to 40,000 people.
Turkey has assured Iraq that the operation would be limited to attacks on rebels. The U.S. and European Union consider the PKK a terrorist group.
On Monday, the Turkish military released video footage of what it said was the ground incursion in Iraq. Images showed a helicopter taking off, trucks with soldiers driving up a hill and troops in white camouflage apparel carrying equipment on their backs.
On Sunday, the military confirmed that a Turkish helicopter crashed in Iraq and said investigators were trying to determine the cause. CNN-Turk television said the helicopter's two pilots died in the crash. The guerrillas said they shot down a Turkish military helicopter near the border.