Turkish troops have launched a ground incursion across the border into Iraq in pursuit of Kurdish rebels, the military said on Friday.
"After the successful bombing, a cross-border ground incursion backed by the Air Force started at 7pm [local time] (5pm GMT)" on Thursday, it said.
"The Turkish Armed Forces, which values Iraq's territorial integrity and its stability, will return as soon as planned goals are achieved," the statement said. "The executed operation will prevent the region from being a permanent and safe base for the terrorists and will contribute to Iraq's stability and internal peace."
Private NTV television said 10,000 troops were taking part in the cross-border offensive, which follows periodic air raids on suspected hideouts of the PKK rebel group in Iraq. The Kurdish militants are fighting for autonomy in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast, and have carried out attacks on Turkish targets from bases in northern Iraq.
Nihat Ali Ozcan, a terrorism expert with the research centre TEPAV, said the operation was launched at this time to hit the group before any infiltration by rebels into Turkey in the spring, the traditional start of the fighting season.
"I think it is aimed to keep the PKK under pressure before the group starts entering Turkey," he said on CNN-Turk television. "I don't think the operation is a large-scale one."
An Iraqi border forces officer, Colonel Hussein Tamer, said Turkish shelling on Thursday hit several Kurdish villages in the Sedafan area, some 30 kilometres from the border.
Jabbar Yawar, a spokesman for Iraqi Kurdish security forces, said sporadic bombing was taking place in the border areas, but no casualties were reported.
Fouad Hussein, a spokesman for the semi-autonomous Kurdish government, said the Kurdish Peshmerga forces had been put on alert. He said Iraqi Kurdish forces also had tightened security around bases housing Turkish military monitors operating in northern Iraq with permission from local authorities under a 1996 agreement.
"The government of Kurdistan ordered the Peshmerga forces to be on alert in fear of any Turkish incursion on Iraqi territory," he said, claiming that Turkish military monitors had tried to leave their bases in violation of the terms of the 1996 agreement.
"Those troops tried to move out but the Peshmerga forces forced them to return to their camps within half an hour," he said.
In Ankara on Thursday, Turkey's civilian and military leaders issued a statement after a meeting on national security, saying cross-border attacks by the military would continue as long they were Òdeemed necessary."
Turkey has staged ground incursions against Turkish Kurd rebels in northern Iraq in past years. The PKK launched its guerrilla campaign in 1984, and as many as 40,000 people have died. (AP)
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