(ANKARA, Turkey) — 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.
Turkish media had varying accounts, but the private Dogan news agency said Turkish F-16 jets hit Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, targets in Hakkari province, near the border with Iraq on Monday. A military statement said the armed forces had responded “in the strongest way” to shelling of a military outpost by the rebels, without specifying that airstrikes were launched.
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 that 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.
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 PKK illustrates the complicated position Turkey faces as it negotiates its role with the U.S. and NATO allies in the anti-Islamic State coalition. The PKK is an important force on the ground in both Iraq and Syria fighting the Islamic State group. But Turkey still views it as a dangerous terrorist adversary.
Kurdish leaders, including jailed PKK chief Abdullah Ocalan, have warned that the fall of Kobani will end the peace process, while PKK commander Cemal Bayik has been quoted in Turkish media as saying that some fighters who had withdrawn from Turkish territory as part of the peace efforts have now returned to Turkey.
More than 30 people were killed last week as Kurds, angered at what they said was Turkish impediment to efforts to defend Kobani, clashed with police and supporters of an Islamist group in cities across Turkey. At least two police officers were among the dead, according to Turkish authorities.
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.
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.
Butler reported from Istanbul