ANKARA, Turkey – Turkish troops have killed at least 49 Kurdish rebels in a valley near the Iraqi border, the military said Saturday, as hundreds of troops also pursued Kurdish fighters within northern Iraq.
The rebels were killed in offensives in the past two days in the Kazan Valley region, near the town of Cukurca that borders Iraq, the military said in a statement posted on its website. There was no confirmation of the deaths from the rebel group.
On Wednesday, Turkey launched anti-rebel offensives involving around 10,000 troops both in southeastern Turkey and across the border in Iraq. The military operations began hours after 24 soldiers were killed in Cukurca by the rebels of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, in the deadliest one-day toll against the military since the 1990s.
Turkey's conflict with the Kurdish rebels has killed tens of thousands of people since the insurgents took up arms to fight for autonomy in the country's Kurdish-dominated southeast in 1984.
The military said it recovered the bodies of 35 rebels at the valley after it struck the area with artillery shells and airstrikes on Saturday. Seven other bodies were found inside a cave while seven more rebels were killed in separate clashes in the region.
"Operations launched in a few regions across the border and in two regions inside Turkey are continuing," the military statement said, adding they were aimed at "preventing acts by members of the separatist terror organization against our units."
On Friday, the military said air and ground offensives were mostly concentrated within Turkey, in Cukurca, while operations were also under way "in a few areas" in northern Iraq.
The military has not revealed the number of soldiers that have crossed into Iraq. But the Haber Turk newspaper reported Saturday that 1,500 elite troops were involved in the ground operation against rebel hideouts in northern Iraq. The Vatan newspaper put the figure at 2,000.
The Turkish troops had penetrated three miles (five kilometers) into Iraqi territory, Haber Turk said, while military helicopters were ferrying elite troops in and out of other areas for "spot operations" against PKK rebels. Warplanes and drones were providing air support for the gunbattles.
The paper said the offensive was targeting seven suspected PKK bases along the border, where about 2,000 rebels are believed to be hiding.
The military said the operation includes commandos, special forces and paramilitary special forces -- elite forces trained in guerrilla warfare. They are being reinforced by F-16 and F-4 warplanes, Super Cobra helicopter gunships and surveillance drones.
The Kurdish rebels meanwhile, said seven of their fighters, including three senior operatives, were killed in Turkish air raids in northern Iraq on Oct. 10 and vowed revenge.
Turkey has launched more than two dozen air and ground incursions into northern Iraq over the 27 years of the insurgency, with mixed results. The rebels have returned to positions along the border soon after the troops have withdrawn. The current offensive was the largest attack on the insurgents in more than three years.
Hurriyet newspaper reported Saturday that Iraqi Kurdish security forces, the Peshmerga, were helping Turkish troops by providing intelligence.
Iraqi leaders have condemned the rebel attacks and promised to stop the PKK from using Iraqi territory for future attacks against Turkey. The Iraqi Foreign Ministry said both Baghdad and the regional Kurdish government in northern Iraq "are committed to securing the borders."
On Friday, Turkey and Iran vowed to collaborate against the PKK and its Iranian wing, the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan, or PJAK, during a visit by Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi. The PKK and PJAK have both been fighting for Kurdish autonomy in their respective countries and both are labeled as terrorist organizations by the United States.