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Rebel attacks in once-safer parts of Turkey threaten an unusual government outreach to Kurds

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Kurdish rebels have dramatically stepped up attacks in Turkey this month in an escalation that poses a dire threat to a remarkable attempt at ending one of the world's longest guerrilla wars.

World attention has focused on the nine Turks killed and hundreds detained late last month in the Israeli boarding of a Turkish vessel seeking to break the Gaza blockade. Inside Turkey, fury at the raid has been accompanied by alarm and anger over strikes on army units in the traditionally safer south and north, hundreds of miles from the poor, Kurdish-dominated southeast where the rebel fight for autonomy is concentrated.

The public outrage and escalating military response appear likely to derail an already faltering government effort to defuse the Kurdish insurgency by granting unprecedented cultural and political freedoms to Turkey's largest minority group.

The rebels blew up a Turkish military vehicle with a rocket-propelled grenade and raked it with automatic weapons near a major highway just on the edge of a Mediterranean port city of Iskenderun in early June, killing six soldiers and wounding seven, in another recent attack.

In the southern province of Osmaniye, a rebel rocket attack killed a lieutenant's 23-year-old wife on the balcony of her apartment building within the perimeters of a military base last week.

On Friday, police seized a car loaded with 110 pounds (50 kilograms) of explosives in the sleepy Aegean resort of Buca and said they had foiled a militant plot by Kurdish militants to bomb the neighboring port city of Izmir — Turkey's third-largest city and a major tourist attraction.

Turkey's military said Wednesday that three commando companies and one special forces battalion had penetrated two miles (three kilometers) into the semiautonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq to chase rebels who attempted an unsuccessful attack on troops. The military said warplanes pounded Kurdish rebel positions and mortar and anti-aircraft units deeper inside Iraqi territory.

The fighting has created a sense of deep pessimism about the year-old initiative known as the Kurdish opening, which saw the Islamic-rooted government promising economic development to the devastated southeast, and allowing the use of the Kurdish language by a people whose very existence was once officially denied.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday accused the rebels of being the main stumbling block to reconciliation.

"The terrorist organization can never speak on behalf of my Kurdish citizens, it will never be," Erdogan told his lawmakers in parliament. "We are determined to maintain this process despite terrorism."

But many say prospects for the reconciliation process appear grim.

"This is a very precarious situation, with great expectations leading to failure, disappointment and frustration," said Svante Cornell, a Turkey expert at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Kurds, who trace their history to ancient Mesopotamia, make up about a fifth of Turkey's more than 70 million people. They have long complained of political, economic and cultural discrimination: their language is barred in schools, parliament and other official settings on the grounds that its use would divide the country along ethnic lines.

Turkey has waged a harsh crackdown during the grinding 26-year insurgency by the Marxist rebel group known as the Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK, which has been labeled a terrorist organization by the West for killing civilians in urban bombings and arson attacks and slaying government teachers, engineers and clergymen.

The conflict has killed as many as 40,000 people and allegations of Turkish brutality and restrictions of Kurdish rights have stained the country's human rights record and hampered its bid to join the European Union. The military offensive has also cost hundreds of millions of dollars in defense spending and slowed construction of schools, hospitals and irrigation projects.

Erdogan's government, eager to mediate regional problems including Israel's conflicts with the Palestinians and Syria, and Iran's nuclear standoff with the West, concluded after its election more than seven years ago that there was a pressing need for peace at home.

Starting last year, it began a full-scale effort to rob the rebels of support instead of crushing them. Turkey lifted a complete ban on the Kurdish language in 1991, but the government went further, allowing Kurdish-language television broadcasts, let prisoners speak Kurdish and promised large-scale development projects in the impoverished southeast. It offered tax incentives to encourage investments and urged the rebels to surrender and provide intelligence about the group in exchange for amnesty.

Violence dropped to a trickle and an end to the war suddenly seemed possible.

"Our people want unity, solidarity, cooperation. Not death and blood," Erdogan said in August. "Mothers want the tears to stop. We all want this."

But a nationalist opposition party withheld political backing for the government plan, saying it was concerned that even allowing Kurdish-language television broadcasts was making too many concessions to rebels who have killed more than 10,000 Turkish troops, police and government-paid village guards, and over 5,000 civilians. And the main opposition party withheld support, criticizing the government for embarking on such an ambitious project without announcing details of it.

Cornell said efforts by the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, were well-intentioned but "very badly managed."

"The government's efforts failed not mainly because of the opposition, but because it mismanaged the process, had unclear goals, and did not succeed in controlling the flow of events," he said.

The fate of reconciliation appeared far more dire after thousands of jubilant Turkish Kurds welcomed a group of rebels in PKK uniforms returning from bases in the semiautonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq in October through the Habur border gate in response to the government's amnesty initiative. Television images of the celebration caused widespread outrage, leading to severe criticism of the government from mainstream Turks in addition to nationalists.

"The atmosphere in Habur was that the rebels won the war and that Turkey was forced to sit down on the table with them," wrote Fikret Bila, a columnist for daily Milliyet, on Wednesday. "The government realized that the political cost of this image could be high and changed its rhetoric."

In the ensuing weeks, the country's independent Constitutional Court shut down the party that represents Kurds in parliament, the Democratic Society Party, on charges of close ties to the PKK. Police arrested party members across the nation. The government rejected demands by both pro-Kurdish politicians and the rebel group for Kurdish-language education in schools and a broader amnesty that would include leaders who operate in northern Iraq and imprisoned Kurdish rebel chief Abdullah Ocalan, a reviled figure for most Turks who still has great influence on his rebel group 11 years after his capture in Kenya.

Last month, Turkey killed at least 19 Kurdish rebels in an airstrike on rebel hideouts in northern Iraq. It was the largest air assault on the rebels since a 2008 ground operation into Iraq that saw many guerrillas return to bases along the border after Turkish units withdrew. The Turkish military says around 4,000 rebels are based just across the border in Iraq and that about 2,500 operate inside Turkey.

On the last day of May, Ocalan said in a message communicated by his lawyers from the prison island of Imrali, near Istanbul, that his calls for rebel dialogue with Turkey had been ignored, so he was abandoning them and giving his consent to the rebel command in northern Iraq to determine the course of action.

The PKK declared an expanded war a day later and rebels intensified their attacks on Turkish troops along the Iraqi border, prompting the military to retaliate with air raids on PKK positions in northern Iraq.

Ocalan warned in a new statement on Tuesday that his rebels could unilaterally declare what they called "democratic autonomy" in the southeast.

"Sooner or later, with more or less spilt blood we have to arrive at the point where we shall attain a solution," he said.

Turkey refuses to negotiate with the PKK and never responds to Ocalan.

A mine explosion and another Kurdish rebel attack in the southeastern province of Sirnak on Tuesday raised the number of Turkish soldiers killed by the rebels to 37 over the past two months, Hurriyet newspaper website said. The troops killed three rebels in an ongoing clash in Sirnak, the state-run Anatolia news agency said.

The government, however, took another step forward toward easing tensions with the Kurds Wednesday and convened a parliamentary judicial commission to debate softening an anti-terrorism law that has been used to jail Kurdish minors involved in violent protests. The proposal was shelved seven months ago following public outcry over a Kurdish rebel arson attack that killed a Turkish girl on a city bus in Istanbul.