Turkey said Wednesday it has airlifted troops into northern Iraq for a cross-border ground operation against Turkey's Kurdish rebels.
The airborne-and-land offensive into the border region of Haftanin, some 15 kilometers (9 miles) from the Turkey-Iraq border, was launched following intense artillery fire into the area, said the Defense Ministry in Ankara.
The operation by commando forces is being supported by warplanes, attack helicopters, artillery and armed and unarmed drones, according to the ministry's statement posted on Twitter. It did not say how many troops are involved.
Turkey regularly carries out air and ground attacks against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which it says maintains bases in northern Iraq.
Turkey has defended its past operations into northern Iraq, saying neither the Iraqi government nor the regional Iraqi Kurdish administration have acted to remove PKK insurgents who allegedly use Iraq's territory to stage attacks on Turkey.
The ministry said Wednesday's operation, dubbed Operation Claw-Tiger, follows “increasing harassment and attempts to attack” military outposts or bases in Turkey. It said the Turkish forces would target other “terror” groups in the region, but did not name them, and shared videos of Defense Minister Hulusi Akar overseeing the mission at a command center in Ankara.
The development came days after Turkey launched an air operation in the region, which the Defense Ministry said hit suspected PKK targets in several locations in Iraq’s north, including Sinjar, and targeted 81 rebel hideouts.
A Turkish military official said the operation began with artillery units targeting some 150 suspected PKK positions and was followed by an aerial attack involving F-16s, drones and attack helicopters.
Some of the commandos crossed the border by land while other units were transported by helicopters. The troops had begun to enter PKK hideouts in Haftanin, the official said, providing the information on condition of anonymity in line with government rules.
It was not clear if the latest offensive would target the Sinjar region, which the Turkish government says has become a new base for PKK commanders. A video provided by the Turkish Defense Ministry showed Akar addressing the commandos, saying they “will make history once again.”
"Turkey continues its fight against terrorists using the rights based on international law," said Omer Celik, deputy chairman of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling party.
Delsher Abdulsata, the mayor of Batifa village in the Haftanin area of Dohuk province, said Turkish forces entered the villages of Keshani, Shilan, Menira, Belbla, Mezuri, Awlayi and Reesha. Bombings began Tuesday night and continued throughout the day Wednesday, he said.
Residents of the villages refused to leave their farmlands because it is their only source of livelihood, he said.
Zagros Hiwa, spokesperson for the military wing of the PKK, said fighting was continuing in the Haftanin area along a 200-kilometer (125-mile) front line.
“These operations are part of Turkey’s plan to expand in the area as they did in Libya and Syria,” he said.
Baghdad summoned Ankara’s ambassador to Iraq , Fatih Yildiz, on Tuesday to protest Turkey's offensive against PKK targets in northern Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region.
The PKK has led a decades-long insurgency in Turkey's mainly Kurdish southeast region. It is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union. The conflict has led to the loss of tens of thousands lives since it started in 1984.
Turkey began expanding it’s military footprint in Iraq last summer in an intense operation against PKK targets following the July 17 assassination of Osman Kose in the northern Iraqi Kurdish city of Irbil. Kose worked for the Turkish Consulate there and Ankara has blamed the PKK for his killing.
Turkish officials have said the operations have focused on cutting supply lines and transport routes connecting the PKK in Turkey and Iraq.
The presence of PKK rebels has brought discomfort to senior Iraqi Kurdish officials, with one official saying the areas where PKK function are a “no man’s land.” He spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the operations.
Kawa Sheikhmous, a PKK official who was in Iraq's northern Kurdish region Tuesday, criticized the Iraqi government for not taking a stronger stance against Turkish incursions.
“We condemn this act and consider it against the interests of the people,” he said. “Our message to the Iraqi government is that it should not tolerate this interference in the sovereignty of Iraq.”
Abdul-Zahra reported from Baghdad. Associated Press writer Samya Kullab in Baghdad contributed to this report.