Attack comes as ISIS advances on Kurdish Syrian town
ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkish warplanes have struck suspected Kurdish rebel positions in southeastern Turkey, media reports said Tuesday, the first major airstrikes against the rebel group since peace talks began two years ago to end a 30-year insurgency.
The attack comes amid heightened tensions in Turkey over Islamic State militants’ advance on the Syrian town of Kobani. Kurds in Turkey accuse the government of standing idly by while Syrian Kurds are being slaughtered in the besieged town across the border.
The return to violence between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, illustrates the complicated position Turkey faces as it negotiates its role with the U.S. and NATO allies fighting the Islamic State extremists.
The PKK and affiliated groups, including fighters defending Kobani, are an important force on the ground in both Iraq and Syria fighting the Islamic State group. But Turkey still views the PKK as a dangerous terrorist adversary.
Turkey has said it won’t join the fight against the Islamic State militants unless the U.S.-led coalition also targets Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.
Turkish media had varying accounts of the strikes by Turkey’s air force on Monday, but the private Dogan news agency said Turkish F-16 jets hit PKK targets in Hakkari province, near the border with Iraq.
Asked about the report, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Turkish forces took the "necessary measure" following intense "harassing fire" by the rebels on a military outpost.
"It is impossible for us to tolerate or to placate these (attacks)," Davutoglu.
A military statement said Tuesday that the rebels had attacked the outpost in Hakkari with long barreled weapons on Monday, prompting the military to retaliate using armored vehicles. The statement made no mention of any airstrikes. An earlier statement said the armed forces had responded "in the strongest way" to a rebel attack.
Firat news agency, which is close to the PKK, confirmed the airstrikes, saying at least five locations around Hakkari were targeted. The agency had a different version of events, however, saying the military had attacked rebel fighters in the region with artillery for three days, forcing the PKK to retaliate by firing at a military unit.
Kurdish leaders, including jailed PKK chief Abdullah Ocalan, have warned that the fall of Kobani would end the peace process, while PKK commander Cemal Bayik has been quoted in Turkish media as saying that some rebel fighters who had withdrawn from Turkish territory as part of the peace efforts have now returned to Turkey.
In a statement carried by Firat news, the PKK said Monday’s airstrikes amounted to an infringement of a cease fire that they unilaterally declared in March 2013, with the tacit support of the Turkish government.
Peace talks began in late 2012.
Earlier, Davutoglu accused Kurds of using the peace process as a means to "blackmail" Turkey into taking action to defend Kobani, but said his government is determined to press ahead with efforts to bring about peace.
More than 30 people were killed last week as Kurds, angered at what they said was a Turkish impediment to efforts to defend Kobani, clashed with police and supporters of an Islamist group in cities across Turkey. The dead included at least two police officers, according to Turkish authorities.
"We said to them there are tens of thousands of (Kurdish) youths wanting to fight (the Islamic State group). Open the door, and we would drown them in our spit. But they would not allow it," Selahattin Demirtas, the leader of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish party said Tuesday.
The PKK has fought Turkey for autonomy for Kurds in a conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives since 1984.
Kurds, who make up an estimated 20 percent of Turkey’s 75 million people, have faced decades of discrimination, including restrictions on the use of their language.