- Associated Press - Monday, June 21, 2010

ANKARA, Turkey | Elite commando units rappelled down from helicopters, and mechanized infantry units blocked escape routes of Kurdish rebels in a major operation along the Iraqi border on Monday. Turkey’s military chief did not rule out a cross-border offensive against rebel hideouts in northern Iraq.

“It is our duty to find and eliminate terrorists wherever they are,” said Gen. Ilker Basbug, head of the military, in response to a question about the possibility of a major incursion. He said the military has been using drones, bought from Israel, over northern Iraq to monitor rebel positions over the past 10 days.

Turkish warplanes often have bombed Kurdish rebel hideouts there, and troops have crossed the border to hunt down the rebels. The last major ground incursion into Iraq was in February 2008, but the rebels made a comeback after the troops withdrew.

The military is hoping to benefit from the use of drones to pinpoint rebel movements and inflict a heavier blow on the guerrillas along the mountainous border, which is extremely difficult to control.

On the Turkish side of the border, the troops closed in on a group of rebels in a major offensive on the slopes of Kupeli and Cirav mountains in Sirnak province, bordering Iraq, the state-run Anatolia news agency said.

The Kurdish rebels, meanwhile, attacked a military unit in the nearby province of Diyarbakir, Anatolia said. One soldier and four rebels were killed in the ensuing fighting, according to the news agency.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed that Kurdish rebels who killed 12 Turkish soldiers in cross-border attacks over the weekend will “drown in their own blood.”

Turkish warplanes bombed the hideouts of Turkish Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq on Saturday, and Turkey’s civilian and military leaders met in a three-hour security summit Monday to discuss further measures and decided to improve intelligence gathering in the southeast, a statement said.

The rebels belonging to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, have used northern Iraq as a springboard to stage hit-and-run attacks on Turkish targets in their decades-long campaign for autonomy in Turkey’s Kurdish-dominated southeast. The Turkish military says around 4,000 rebels are based just across the border in Iraq and that about 2,500 operate inside Turkey.

For years, the rebels have battled NATO’s second-largest army by mining roads, ambushing patrols and even booby-trapping the bodies of dead comrades. They trained their Russian-made SA-7 surface-to-air missiles on Turkish helicopters. They fired Russian RPG-7 rocket-propelled grenades at military trucks. They camouflaged their scent with black pepper to throw off the army’s guard dogs.

The Turkish military ratcheted up its pressure, improving its tactics and its equipment to fight a guerrilla war, began using helicopter gunships to blast rebel hideouts and paved dirt roads to prevent rebels from planting mines while deploying jammers against remote-controlled roadside bombs.