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Turkey Launches Military Campaign against Kurdish Rebel Bases in Iraq

By Kelly Couturier
The Washington Post
ANKARA, Turkey

Turkey launched a large-scale military assault against Kurdish separatist bases in northern Iraq Monday, dispatching a 35,000-man force backed by warplanes, armored vehicles and artillery along a front stretching 135 miles through rugged border mountains.

The attack, on the eve of the Newroz spring festival celebrated by many Kurds, marked Turkey's largest military campaign on foreign soil, including the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, according to government spokesman Yildirim Aktuna. But Turkey has launched previous raids into Iraq, notably in 1992, when 20,000 troops were sent in to flush rebels from their mountain bases and 2,500 rebels were killed, according to the government.

Prime Minister Tansu Ciller described Monday's offensive as part of a growing battle to vanquish the separatist insurgency in southeastern Turkey being waged by guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers' Party. An estimated 15,000 people have been killed in the 10-year-old conflict, which has included terrorist tactics by the separatists and widely criticized reprisals by the Turkish military.

Ciller said the offensive will continue until the objective of clearing the Iraqi border area of Kurdish forces is achieved. She forcefully reiterated what she described as her government's determination to "stamp out terrorism against the state."

"The operation will be of limited duration and the forces involved will be withdrawn immediately following the elimination of the targets," a government statement said.

The massive operation, involving mostly elite commando units, was the latest illustration of the Ciller government's pursuit of a military solution to the Kurdish insurgency, despite the heavy costs to Turkey's already battered economy - an estimated $7 billion last year - and mounting accusations of human rights abuses associated with the conflict.

Western nations, especially European ones, have increasingly urged Turkey to improve its human rights record. At the same time, Ankara has received support from the United States and Western European governments for its fight against Kurdish terrorism.