- The Washington Times - Monday, February 25, 2008

CUKURCA, Turkey (AP) — A Turkish helicopter crashed in Iraq and eight soldiers were killed during a cross-border ground operation against Kurdish rebels, who planted booby traps on the bodies of their slain comrades, Turkey’s military said yesterday.

The guerrillas said they shot down a Turkish military helicopter near the Turkey-Iraq border.

Turkey’s military said technicians were inspecting the wreck to determine why the helicopter crashed near the border. It was not clear whether any of the reported troop casualties were on board. Their deaths bring the Turkish toll since the start of the incursion Thursday to 15, the military said on its Web site.

Thirty-three rebels were killed in yesterday’s fighting, bringing the rebel death toll since Thursday to 112, according to the armed forces.

The incursion is the first confirmed Turkish military ground operation in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The rebels of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, are fighting for autonomy in predominantly Kurdish southeastern Turkey and have carried out attacks on Turkish targets from bases in the semiautonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq. The conflict started in 1984 and has claimed as many as 40,000 lives.

Turkey has said the operation will be limited to attacks on rebels. The United States and European Union consider the PKK a terrorist group.

“It is only an operation geared to cleansing the terrorist camps,” Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said yesterday in an address to the youth branch of his ruling party. “Our Iraqi brothers, friends and civilians should know that they will never be targeted by the armed forces.”

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said yesterday while visiting Australia that a broader approach would be needed to erode PKK support in northern Iraq.

“After a certain point, people become inured to military attacks,” he said, “and if you don’t blend them with these kinds of nonmilitary initiatives, then at a certain point, the military efforts become less and less effective.”

Massoud Barzani, head of the regional Kurdish administration in northern Iraq, warned that Turkey would face large-scale resistance if it targeted civilians in Iraq.

The Iraqi government said Saturday that fewer than 1,000 Turkish troops had crossed the frontier. Turkish press reports put the number in the thousands.

The office of Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said Turkish forces should leave Iraq.

“We demand that the Turkish government withdraw its forces immediately from the Iraqi territory and rely on negotiations to solve this conflict,” Sheik al-Sadr’s political committee said.

Iran, which is fighting an Iraq-based group of Kurdish militants with PKK links, said it would maintain security measures on its border with northern Iraq.

The Turkish military said clashes with the rebels were taking place in four areas of northern Iraq but did not specify the locations.

“Terrorist hide-outs have been effectively destroyed by warplanes, helicopter gunships and artillery,” the military said.

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