Several Turkish soldiers killed in major PKK attack

Stuart Williams, Dilay Gundogan
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Kurds watch military vehicles during clashes between Kurdish activists and Turkish government forces at Yuksekova, in Hakkari province, southeast Turkey, on August 27, 2015

Kurds watch military vehicles during clashes between Kurdish activists and Turkish government forces at Yuksekova, in Hakkari province, southeast Turkey, on August 27, 2015 (AFP Photo/)

Istanbul (AFP) - Several Turkish soldiers were killed and more wounded in a major attack in southeastern Hakkari province carried out by Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants, the military said Monday, keeping tight-lipped over the scale of the death toll.

The Turkish air force immediately scrambled warplanes to strike PKK targets in southeast Turkey in retaliation, marking a further intensification in the latest flare-up of the decades-long conflict.

In a sign of the gravity of the attack on Sunday, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu broke off a trip to Konya to watch a national football game and summoned an emergency security meeting in Ankara, the official Anatolia agency said.

The army said the PKK attack on two military vehicles in a convoy in Daglica district of Hakkari -- a known stronghold of the Kurdish militants -- had killed several soldiers and wounded others.

"Two of our armoured vehicles were severely damaged by improvised explosive devices left on the road," the army said, adding: "Some of our brave soldiers were killed and others injured as a result of the explosion."

Two Turkish F-4 and two F-16 warplanes were deployed to carry out strikes in a "heavy air campaign" against 13 targets controlled by the militants in retaliation, it added.

Many "terrorists" were killed in the air strikes, Anatolia said, without giving a precise toll.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he was "very sad" about the attack on the soldiers, telling the A-Haber channel in a live television interview: "A mine attack has been staged. There will be a very particular and decisive fight there".

He added the attack happened during a "clean-up operation" against PKK militants.

- 'Act of sabotage' -

The PKK claimed the attack as an "act of sabotage" in a statement on the website of its military wing, the People's Defence Forces (HPG).

The group, which is known for sometimes exaggerating tolls of attacks on the security forces, said 15 soldiers had been killed.

Unofficial reports on the Internet had also indicated that the death toll was considerably higher than in any other PKK attack during a current spike in unrest in Turkey.

It is extremely unusual for the army not to give a precise death toll after an attack, leading to speculation that the number was unusually high, or simply not known.

Davutoglu, who had watched Turkey defeat the Netherlands in a key Euro 2016 qualifier in Konya, was rushed in his motorcade to attend the security meeting with officials, including army chief of staff Hulusi Akar and spy chief Hakan Fidan.

The PKK has been staging daily attacks against the armed forces as the military presses an over month-long operation against the group in southeast Turkey and northern Iraq.

The violence has left in tatters a 2013 ceasefire aimed at assisting the search for 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 latterly the demands focused on greater autonomy and rights.

- Newspaper attacked -

Turkey has been on heightened alert since Ankara launched a two-pronged offensive to bomb Islamic State militants in Syria and PKK rebels in northern Iraq and southeast Turkey.

Earlier Sunday, two police were killed in an attack in Sur district of the southeastern city of Diyarbakir that was attributed to the PKK, security sources told AFP.

Some 70 members of the security forces have been killed since July in attacks blamed on the PKK, while official media have claimed that at least 967 militants have been killed.

The unrest comes at a explosive time in Turkey as the country prepares to hold snap elections on November 1 following June polls where Erdogan's ruling party lost its overall majority.

Riot police were called to disperse some 150 protesters who attacked the office of the Hurriyet daily in Istanbul's Bagcilar district, accusing the newspaper of misquoting Erdogan.

Commenting on the recent unrest in Turkey, Erdogan earlier told the pro-government A-Haber channel: "If a party had got 400 seats in the elections and reached the required number in parliament to change the constitution, the situation would be different."

Hurriyet tweeted a headline saying: "Daglica comment from Erdogan: This would not have happened if 400 mandates had been won."

But the post was later deleted and AKP supporters launched a Twitter campaign calling for protests against the daily, which does not always follow the government line in its reporting.