Over '100 dead' as Turkey presses major offensive against PKK

Mahmut Bozarslan with Burak Akinci in Ankara
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A deserted street in Silvan after clashes between Turkish forces and Kurdish militants in November 2015

A deserted street in Silvan after clashes between Turkish forces and Kurdish militants in November 2015 (AFP Photo/Ilyas Akengin)

Diyarbakir (Turkey) (AFP) - The number of Kurdish rebels killed in a massive Turkish military offensive in the restive southeast has jumped to 102, a security source told AFP on Sunday, as the operation entered its fifth day.

At least two soldiers and five civilians have also been killed in the fighting, the source said.

An earlier toll released on Saturday put the figure at 70 dead in the unprecedented police and army operation, with the military saying all were suspected members of the rebel Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

Some 10,000 troops backed by tanks have been deployed in the southeast to try to rout young PKK supporters from urban areas, according to local media.

The operation, which has targeted the towns of Cizre and Silopi in the province of Sirnak as well as a neighbourhood in Diyarbakir, the largest city in the region, began on Wednesday, according to the army.

On Friday, the military also carried out air strikes on alleged PKK hideouts and weapons sites across the border in northern Iraq, where the outlawed group has its rear bases.

Images published by the Anatolia news agency show heavily-armed soldiers backed by tanks going house-to-house in the towns and firing from street corners.

Army forces chief General Hulusi Akar visited Sirnak province on Saturday for a briefing by the local military command.

The Turkish government says the operation is needed to eliminate militants who were effectively taking over the towns by building barricades and digging trenches.

But Kurdish activists and politicians have accused the army of acting with impunity and pounding large parts of the towns to rubble.

In Istanbul, some 600 protesters denouncing the military operations were dispersed without major incident by riot police on Sunday.

But in the eastern city of Van, police used rubber bullets and tear gas against a thousand stone-throwing protesters, the Dogan news agency reported.

- 'Attempt to unleash civil war' -

The army said that two schools used by the PKK as hideouts had been rendered inoperable while a stash of arms had been seized in Silopi.

The education ministry recalled teachers from the area and schools were closed, as were health services due to a lack of doctors, among some 200,000 people who have fled the conflict zone.

The operations mark a new escalation in five months of fighting between the army and the PKK since a two-and-a-half year truce collapsed in July.

The PKK launched an insurgency against the Turkish state in 1984, initially fighting for Kurdish independence although it is now pressing more for greater autonomy and rights for the country's largest ethnic minority.

The conflict has left tens of thousands of people dead.

Although analysts have called for peace talks, the authorities led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, buoyed by the victory of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the November 1 election, have said Ankara must eradicate the PKK.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Sunday condemned what he said was "an attempt to unleash a civil war".

He warned that the military operations, criticised by some members of the political opposition and rights groups, will last until the towns targeted are completely "cleansed".

"We are faced with a barbaric organisation which is trying to exploit young people to affect their lives by installing these barricades," he told a gathering in Ankara of young people from the ruling AKP.

He also promised financial help to residents forced to flee the conflict zone as well as businesses that have been hard hit.

But Turkey's Human Rights Association protested that the operations and "the systematic recourse to curfews represent an unacceptable collective punishment".