Fifteen Turkish soldiers killed in clashes with PKK
By Ibon Villelabeitia
ANKARA (Reuters) - Fifteen Turkish soldiers were killed and 20 were wounded in clashes with Kurdish separatist PKK rebels in southeast Turkey on Friday, Turkish officials said, in one of the deadliest attacks on the military this year.
At least 23 members of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) were also killed after rebels based in northern Iraq fired heavy weapons at a military outpost in the Semdinli region bordering Iraq and Iran, the military said.
The attack is likely to put pressure on Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan to strike back at the PKK. It also threatens to strain ties between Iraq and Turkey, which has accused Baghdad of not doing enough to crush PKK rebels.
NATO-member Turkey has attacked PKK bases in northern Iraq several times in the past 12 months but has confined itself to shelling and air strikes since a land offensive in February.
The General Staff said two Turkish soldiers were missing and that a rescue operation was under way. It said "most of our losses were caused by heavy weapon fire from the north of Iraq."
A Reuters correspondent on the Turkish side of the border saw Turkish attack helicopters and F-16 fighter jets flying over the area on Saturday. Special forces were being deployed.
Attacks by PKK rebels based in Iraq are a major irritant in relations between Ankara and Baghdad. Washington and the European Union are concerned that prolonged Turkish military operations inside Iraq could further destabilise Iraq.
Turkey's Foreign Ministry urged Baghdad to "take necessary precautions and prevent the repetition of such attacks."
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh condemned the PKK attack but urged Ankara to act with "wisdom and self-restraint."
NATO, the EU and the U.S. embassy in Ankara condemned the PKK attack.
PM CHAIRS SECURITY MEETING
Erdogan cut short an official visit to Turkmenistan on Saturday to chair an emergency security meeting in Ankara.
Turkish military and civilian leaders pledged in the meeting to take strong actions against the PKK and said they had considered "all methods and precautions" to do so.
"The struggle against terrorism will continue with increased determination," a statement issued after the meeting said.
Parliament this month is likely to pass a government request to extend a mandate to launch military operations against the PKK in Iraq as needed. The current mandate expires on October 17.
Turkey blames the PKK, considered a terrorist organisation by the United States and the EU, for the deaths of more than 40,000 people since it launched its campaign for an ethnic Kurdish homeland in southeast Turkey in 1984.
Washington is sharing vital intelligence with Turkey on PKK movements in Iraq. The group has been weakened in recent years and the conflict has died down since its heyday in the 1990s.#
Friday's attack is the first serious challenge for Turkey's new military chief, General Ilker Basbug, who took over NATO's second-largest army in August.
Basbug has said that, while military operations against the PKK will continue, socio-economic measures are needed to bring peace to the impoverished southeast.
President Abdullah Gul hinted at a possible intelligence failure. The outpost has been attacked several times.
"We are closely investigating how this last heinous attack was made, who were the collaborators, and who facilitated this attack?" Gul said in a statement.
Erdogan has announced plans to invest up to $12 billion in southeast Turkey to improve living standards and drain support for the PKK.
The ruling AK Party hopes to wrest control of key cities in the southeast from a pro-Kurdish political party in municipal elections next March. Turkey is home to around 12 million Kurds, a sixth of the total population.
(Additional reporting by Aws Qusay in Baghdad; Editing by Dominic Evans)
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