ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey's security forces have killed as many as 115 Kurdish rebels during a major security offensive over the past two weeks, the country's interior minister said Sunday.
Idris Naim Sahin said the rebels were killed in an airpower backed offensive near the town of Semdinli, in Hakkari province which sits on the border with Iraq. He said the offensive began on July 23.
Sahin provided few other details on the ongoing operation but said the security forces were trying to block the rebels' escape routes into northern Iraq.
Private NTV television said earlier that as many as 2,000 troops were taking part in the offensive and that public access to some roads in the area were blocked.
Earlier Sunday, rebels fired on military posts in Hakkari province that borders Iraq, including the paramilitary station near the village of Gecimli, some 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the frontier, according to a statement from the Hakkari governor's office.
Gov. Orhan Alimoglu said the attack near Gecimli triggered clashes that claimed the lives of 22 rebels, soldiers and village guards. At least 15 soldiers, another village guard and five civilians were also injured in the attack. There were no reports of any casualties in the attacks on the other posts.
The attack comes some six weeks after a similar raid on a military unit, also in Hakkari province, killed 18 rebels and eight soldiers, prompting Turkey's military to send warplanes and attack helicopters to hit Kurdish rebel targets inside Iraq.
The rebels of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, are fighting for autonomy in Turkey's Kurdish-dominated southeast region and maintain bases in northern Iraq from where they launch hit-and-run attacks on Turkish targets. The conflict between the PKK and Turkish government forces has killed tens of thousands of people since the rebels took up arms in 1984.
The group is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union. Turkey has raised concerns that Kurdish rebels could now also exploit a power vacuum in neighboring Syria and warned it would "not tolerate" any rebel threats from the Syrian territory. The Turkish government said last month that Turkish Kurdish rebels have seized control of five towns along the border in collaboration with Syria's Democratic Union Party, or PYD — an ethnic Kurdish grouping. It has launched military drills near the frontier in a show of muscle aimed at the rebels.
The military on Sunday sent reinforcements to Hakkari, launching ground and air operations to chase the rebels, the governor's office said, without elaborating. State-run TRT television said attack helicopters were firing on the rebels' escape routes in the rugged, mountainous border region.
Turkey's leaders condemned the attack, which came during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, and said the government was determined to keep up the fight against the PKK.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the attack was a "dastardly assault" and issued a warning to countries allegedly backing the PKK, saying Turkey was "powerful enough to bring into line enemy-country (puppet masters) who hold the strings of the terror organization." He did not name any countries and it was not clear if the statement was aimed at Syria, in relation to the PKK presence there.
Erdogan has recently ruled out negotiating with the PKK to end the decades-old conflict and said state security forces would continue their struggle against the group until it lays down arms. The government has acknowledged that some officials have in the past held secret talks with the rebels that were subsequently abandoned.
"Terrorism is, sooner or later, doomed to lose and to go up in smoke in the face of the people's resolve and determination," Erdogan said Sunday.
An estimated 20 percent of Turkey's 75 million people are Kurds. The government is trying to reconcile with the Kurdish minority by granting it more cultural rights.
Erdogan's government recently announced plans to introduce elective Kurdish classes in schools, building on moves that allowed Kurdish language television broadcasts, Kurdish-language institutes and private Kurdish courses.
The government however, refuses demands by Kurdish activists and politicians for full education in the Kurdish language, fearing it would divide Turkey along ethnic lines.