(Reuters) – Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said on Sunday Kurdish militants would “drown in their own blood” as he lead political and army chiefs in paying respects to troops killed in a clash with the rebels.
The fighting on Saturday, which marked a fresh escalation in the 26-year-old insurgency, killed 11 soldiers and 12 Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) guerrillas in the southeastern province of Hakkari, near the border with Iraq.
The soldiers’ coffins, draped in red-and-white Turkish flags, were laid out on tables for a ceremony at a military base in the city of Van where Erdogan and armed forces chief General Ilker Basbug listened to a Muslim prayer with other leaders.
“Today we will not make the traitors happy,” Erdogan said. “We will defend this ground heroically. Resolute against enemies, resolute against terrorism.”
“I say here very clearly, they will not win. They will gain nothing. They will melt away in their own darkness…they will drown in their own blood,” he said.
The death toll in Saturday’s clash was one of the highest in recent years in a conflict which has killed more than 40,000 people since the PKK took up arms against the state in 1984 with the aim of creating an ethnic homeland in the southeast.
A similarly deadly PKK attack on a military unit in Hakkari in 2007 was followed in early 2008 by a cross-border land offensive against rebel targets in northern Iraq.
After Saturday’s battle, the Turkish air force struck PKK targets in the mountains of northern Iraq, where several thousand of the rebels are based.
Separatist violence generally increases in southeast Turkey in the spring as the guerrillas cross the border from Iraq and there has been a notable escalation in the last two months.
Military sources said on Sunday one Turkish soldier was killed and one injured overnight in a Kurdish rebel attack on a military outpost in the southeastern province of Elazig.
They said the militants threw a hand grenade at the base before opening fire with rifles in the Palu district of Elazig.
The PKK, branded terrorists by Turkey, the United States and the European Union, said this month they had scrapped a year-old unilateral ceasefire and resumed attacks against Turkish forces because of military operations against them.
The ceasefire had come as Erdogan’s government worked on plans to boost Kurdish rights to help end the conflict. However, the process has faltered and it suffered a setback in December when the Constitutional Court banned the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) over links to the PKK.
(Writing by Daren Butler)