Report: Turkish jets hit PKK Kurdish rebel targets in 1st airstrikes since peace talks began



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ANKARA, Turkey — In a sign of further turbulence for the U.S. led-coalition against the Islamic State group, Turkish warplanes have struck suspected Kurdish rebel positions in southeastern Turkey, media reports said Tuesday.

It was the first major airstrikes against the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, since peace talks began two years ago to end a 30-year insurgency in Turkey. It added to tensions between the key U.S. coalition partner and PKK, a militant group listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. that is also among the fiercest opponents of the Islamic State group.

The return to violence between the two parties suggests that Turkey's focus may not be on the Islamic State group, even as it negotiates its role with the U.S. and NATO allies fighting the extremists. Turkey has provoked frustration among allies, by saying it won't join the fight against the Islamic State militants unless the U.S.-led coalition also targets Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime.

The attack follows a week of violence in Turkey spawned by the Islamic State militants' advance on the Syrian town of Kobani. More than 30 people were killed last week as Kurds, angered at what they said was a Turkish impediment to efforts to defend Kobani, clashed with police and supporters of an Islamist group in cities across Turkey. Turkish authorities said at least two police officers were killed in what was widely interpreted in Turkey as a PKK assassination attempt on a police chief.

Kurds in Turkey accuse the government of standing idly by while Syrian Kurds are being slaughtered in the besieged town across the border.

Meanwhile, the U.S.-led coalition on Tuesday launched 22 airstrikes on Islamic State group positions in Syria, with all but one targeting positions in and around Kobani, the U.S. Defense Department said.

"Over the past night there have been very intense airstrikes by the coalition that targeted several Daesh positions in and near Kobani," said Idriss Nassan, deputy head of Kobani's foreign relations committee, using an Arabic acronym to refer to the Islamic State group.

One of the airstrikes targeted the Tel Shair hill that overlooks parts of Kobani, Nassan said. He added that Kurdish fighters later captured the hill and brought down the black flag of the Islamic State group. The extremist group still controls more than a third of the predominantly Kurdish town.

An Associated Press journalist on the Turkish side of the border confirmed that the Islamic State flag was not flying Tuesday afternoon on the hill.

The fate of Kobani is being watched closely in Turkey, where Kurdish leaders, including jailed PKK chief Abdullah Ocalan, have warned that the fall of Kobani would end the peace process. Meanwhile, PKK commander Cemal Bayik has been quoted in Turkish media as saying that some PKK fighters who had withdrawn from Turkish territory as part of the peace efforts have now returned to Turkey.

The PKK and affiliated groups, including fighters defending Kobani, are an important force on the ground in both Iraq and Syria fighting the Islamic State group. The PKK has fought Turkey for autonomy for Kurds in a conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives since 1984.

Turkish media had varying accounts of the strikes by Turkey's air force on Monday, but the private Dogan news agency said Turkish F-16 jets hit PKK targets in Hakkari province, near the border with Iraq.

Asked about the report, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Turkish forces took the "necessary measure" following intense "harassing fire" by PKK rebels on a military outpost.

"It is impossible for us to tolerate or to placate these (attacks)," Davutoglu said.

Earlier, Davutoglu accused Kurds of using the peace process as a means to "blackmail" Turkey into taking action to defend Kobani, but said his government is determined to press ahead with efforts to bring about peace.

Selahattin Demirtas, the leader of Turkey's pro-Kurdish party said there are tens of thousands of Kurdish youths that want to fight the Islamic State group.

"We said to them ... open the door, and we would drown them in our spit. But they would not allow it," he said.


Butler reported from Istanbul


Follow Desmond Butler on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/desmondbutler

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