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Turkish troops pull back after Iraq incursion

By Ivan Watson and Yesim Comert, CNN
  • Turkish soldiers in 'hot pursuit' of rebels
  • Military: Army sergeant, 4 rebel fighters slain
  • Worsening Ankara-Jerusalem ties upstage fighting
  • Turkey
  • Iraq

Istanbul, Turkey (CNN) -- Hundreds of Turkish soldiers have completed their withdrawal from Iraqi territory, a day after the Turkish military announced it sent troops into Iraq in "hot pursuit" of Kurdish rebels, Turkish government officials said on Thursday.

"Our pullback has been completed," said Burak Ozugergin, spokesman for Turkey's Foreign Ministry.

The Turkish armed forces issued a statement on its website on Wednesday that one army sergeant was killed after Kurdish rebels attached a Turkish border post along the border with Iraq.

After a battle that lasted hours, the Turkish military said it sent three commando divisions and a special forces brigade two or three kilometers into Iraqi territory in pursuit of the rebels.

Turkish warplanes later carried out a series of airstrikes against suspected rebel targets in Iraq. The Turkish military claimed to have killed four rebel fighters during the battle.

The long-simmering guerrilla war between fighters from the Kurdistan Workers' Party and Turkish security forces has again flared this summer.

At least 12 Turkish soldiers and sailors have been killed by increasingly bold rebel attacks over the last three weeks. But the fighting has been upstaged by Turkey's rapidly deteriorating relations with former ally Israel.

Hours before a May 31, Israeli commando raid against a convoy of ships carrying humanitarian aid for Gaza turned deadly, Kurdish rebels mounted a rocket attack on a Turkish naval base in Iskenderum, leading to the deaths of six servicemen.

Some Turkish media outlets and low-ranking government officials even suggested the two incidents were linked.

These unfounded conclusions have been dropped in the weeks since the incidents occurred. Kurdish militants based in camps in remote mountains of northern Iraq have long rejected the Turkish and U.S. government's accusation that the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, is a "terrorist organization."

For several years, the U.S. military has been sharing intelligence information on the rebels with Washington's NATO ally Turkey. The intelligence is presumably from surveillance aircraft flying over northern Iraq.

The PKK has been battling the Turkish government since the early 1980s. Initially, the movement fought to carve out a separate homeland for Turkey's ethnic Kurdish minority. More then 30,000 people, mostly ethnic Kurds, have been killed during the conflict.

In recent years, the rebels say they have given up these demands, and are instead fighting for more linguistic and cultural freedoms, in a country where the government long referred to Kurds as "mountain Turks."

The Turkish military last mounted a major ground offensive into northern Iraq in February 2008. At least eight Turkish troops were killed during the incursion, which lasted several days. The Turkish military claimed to have killed dozens of rebel fighters.