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Originally published Saturday, February 23, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Sizable Turkish force enters Iraq to fight Kurdish rebels

Supported by air power, Turkish troops crossed into northern Iraq on Friday in their first major ground incursion against Kurdish rebel...

The Associated Press

CIZRE, Turkey — Supported by air power, Turkish troops crossed into northern Iraq on Friday in their first major ground incursion against Kurdish rebel bases in nearly a decade. But Turkey sought to avoid confrontation with U.S.-backed Iraq, saying the guerrillas were its only target.

The offensive, which started late Thursday after aircraft and artillery blasted suspected rebel targets, marked a dramatic escalation in Turkey's fight with the PKK rebel group even though Turkish officials described the operation as limited.

A military officer of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq said on condition of anonymity that several hundred Turkish soldiers had crossed the border. The coalition has satellites as well as drones and other surveillance aircraft at its disposal.

Sky-Turk television said about 2,000 Turkish soldiers were in Iraq, operating against rebel camps about two miles in from the border. NTV television said a total of 10,000 soldiers were inside Iraq in an operation that had extended six miles past the frontier. The activity was reportedly occurring about 60 miles east of Cizre, a major town near the border with Iraq.

It was not possible to independently confirm the size or scope of the attack on the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which is considered a terrorist group by the United States and European Union. CNN-Turk television, citing Turkish security officials, said the operation could last two weeks.

Late in the day, the Turkish military said five of its soldiers and 24 rebels had died in a clash inside Iraq and estimated at least 20 more rebels were killed by artillery and helicopter gunships. It said sporadic fighting was continuing.

Earlier, PKK spokesman Ahmad Danas said two Turkish soldiers were killed and eight wounded in clashes along the 240-mile border, but said nothing about rebel casualties. There was no way to confirm either report independently.

The advance was the first confirmed Turkish military ground operation in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003. Turkey's army is believed to have carried out unacknowledged "hot pursuits" in recent years, with small groups of troops staying in Iraq for as little as a few hours or a day.

The PKK militants 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's government has complained that Iraqi and U.S. authorities weren't doing enough to stop guerrilla operations. The Turkish air force has been staging air raids on PKK forces in the north since December with the help of intelligence provided by the U.S., a NATO ally.

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