Thirteen Turkish soldiers and seven Kurdish resistance fighters were killed in Turkish-occupied northern Kurdistan on Thursday in what Ankara is calling the deadliest attack on troops in the troubled region for three years.
The incident near the town of Silvan, in Diyarbakir province, also left seven soldiers wounded, two of them seriously, according to provincial governor Mustafa Toprak.
The attack took place during a military operation in the mountainous region known to be a stronghold of the rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). According to the local sources who described the action as a rebel ambush, the gunfire continued into Thursday evening.
Ankara sent reinforcements by helicopters to rescue Turkish soldiers, intensifying the fierce clashes with indiscriminate force that sparked a fire in a nearby forest.
The United States officially denounced the attack, which took place as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was en route to Turkey.
“The United States condemns in the strongest terms” the killings of Turkish soldiers, State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters in Washington.
After arriving late Thursday evening, Clinton said she was “deeply saddened” by the deaths of the Turkish soldiers.
“We stand with Turkey in its fight against the PKK, a designated terrorist organization which has claimed tens of thousands of Turkish lives,” she said in a statement.
“We support Turkey in its fight against terror and we will continue to work with the government of Turkey to combat terrorism in all its forms. I will be meeting with Turkey’s leaders over the next two days in Istanbul where I will personally convey to them our commitment to close cooperation.”
According to the Anatolia new agency, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan canceled his engagements in Istanbul to convene an emergency meeting with the country’s top security chiefs, including military commanders and Interior Minister Besir Atalay.
After that meeting, which reportedly lasted 45 minutes, Erdogan issued a statement stressing Ankara’s determination to crush Kurdish resistance groups.
“The objective of the forces behind this attack are clear,” he said. “Turkey has the forces and the determination to overcome the terrorism issue.”
In Turkey’s parliament, Assembly President Cemil Cicek reacted angrily to the latest rebel action, calling on Kurdish political figures to cooperate with the regime against resistance groups.
“On the one side there is democracy, peace and freedom, but on the other blood, hate and barbarism,” he said in a statement released by Anatolia.
Selahattin Demirtas, head of the biggest pro-Kurdish political faction in Turkey, the BDP, offered his condolences for the dead but denounced the lack of will by the regime to grant basic rights to Kurds living under Turkish rule.
Pro-Kurdish activists have demanded an end to all discrimination in Turkish laws against ethnic Kurds, as well as Ankara’s recognition of the Kurds’ national identity in its constitution and of their language as a native language along with Turkish in Kurdish populated areas.
Political figures identified with the outlawed PKK have been at the forefront of fighting for these rights in recent years.
Thursday’s attack was the deadliest on the Turkish army since October 2008 when 17 occupation troops were killed in a daring rebel raid on an army base.
Last week a Turkish staff sergeant was killed and three soldiers wounded in clashes with the PKK in the eastern Pulumur area.
The PKK, listed as a terrorist group by Turkey, the US and much of the international community, took up arms to liberate their country from Turkish rule in 1984, sparking a conflict that has since claimed over 45,000 lives.
In late February, the PKK threatened to end a unilateral truce with Turkey, declared in August last year, while saying they would defend themselves “more effectively” against the military operations of the occupying regime.