14 Turkish police 'killed by PKK' as violence spirals

Fulya Ozerkan
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Turkish special police forces position themselves during clashes in the centre of Diyarbakir, southeast Turkey on June 9, 2015

Turkish special police forces position themselves during clashes in the centre of Diyarbakir, southeast Turkey on June 9, 2015 (AFP Photo/Ilyas Akengin)

Ankara (AFP) - Fourteen Turkish police were killed Tuesday in a new attack by Kurdish militants as violence in the east threatened to spiral out of control and Ankara launched a massive wave of air strikes against rebel strongholds in northern Iraq.

The 14 police were killed in the eastern region of Igdir in a bomb attack by Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) militants on a minibus taking them to the Dilucu border post with neighbouring Azerbaijan, the state-run Anatolia news agency reported.

The attack came two days after 16 Turkish soldiers were killed in a twin roadside bomb attack in Daglica in the southeastern region of Hakkari, according to the army, the deadliest strike in the current phase of the conflict.

Anatolia said that 12 police were killed in Tuesday's attack, with two more losing their lives in hospital. Two others are being treated in Igdir city hospital, it said.

A PKK spokesman in northern Iraq confirmed to AFP that the PKK had carried out the attack.

The deaths prompted Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu vow to "wipe out" PKK militants from the mountains of eastern Turkey.

The PKK, known for sometimes exaggerating the death tolls of its attacks, said 31 Turkish soldiers had been killed in Sunday's gun and bomb attack in Daglica.

Turkey has staged air strikes and ground operations against the PKK in its strongholds of southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq in a bid to inflict a mortal blow on its capacities.

But the PKK has hit back, killing dozens of Turkish police and soldiers in almost daily attacks, with the bloodier attacks marking a new intensification of the conflict.

- 'Wipe out terrorists' -

In response to the Daglica attack, Turkish warplanes launched a massive air operation early Tuesday in northern Iraq, killing as many as 40 rebels, Anatolia said.

More than 50 Turkish jets were involved in the six hours of raids, killing "35 to 40 terrorists according to preliminary findings", it added.

A spokesman for the PKK in northern Iraq, Zagros Hiwa, told AFP in Iraq that the Turkish air strikes had lasted from 11:00 pm (2000 GMT) on Monday until 5:00 am (0200 GMT) on Tuesday.

"These terrorists must be wiped out from the mountains," Davutoglu said Monday.

"The mountains of this country, the plains, highlands, cities, will be not abandoned to terrorists," he said.

The violence has left in tatters a 2013 ceasefire aimed at allowing a final peace deal to end the PKK's three-decade insurgency, which has claimed tens of thousands of lives.

The PKK initially took up arms in 1984 with the aim of establishing an independent state for Turkey's Kurdish minority, although lately the demands focused on greater autonomy and rights.

Commentators have expressed alarm that the current situation increasingly resembles the worst days of the PKKs insurgency in the 1990s when attacks on this scale were commonplace.

In a scene that has become familiar over the last weeks, Davutoglu attended a funeral ceremony for the soldiers killed in the Daglica attack in the eastern city of Van.

The US embassy in Ankara condemned the Daglica attack, saying: "We stand with Turkey in the fight against terror and repeat our call to the PKK -– renounce violence and return to the peace process."

The unrest comes at an explosive time in Turkey as the country prepares to hold snap elections on November 1 following June polls where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling party lost its overall majority as a pro-Kurdish party made a major breakthrough.

Davutoglu said the elections would be held under "democratic conditions" and urged the country's political forces to stand "shoulder to shoulder" in a show of unity.

The co-chair of pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtas, called for peace between Turks and Kurds.

"Kurds, Turks embrace each other. The best medicine against all the provocations is peace," he said.