ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey's military announced Monday that 16 soldiers were killed and six others were wounded in a Kurdish rebel attack against troops in southeast Turkey a day earlier. The attack was the deadliest assault on Turkish troops since renewed fighting between the rebels and Turkey's security forces erupted in July, shattering a fragile peace process.
Rebels of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, on Sunday detonated roadside improvised explosive devices near the village of Daglica, in the mainly-Kurdish Hakkari province which borders Iran and Iraq, targeting soldiers who were traveling in a convoy on a mission to clear the area of mines and explosives. The attack prompted the military to launch air operations against PKK targets in the area.
Violence in Turkey escalated after a suicide bombing in July, blamed on the Islamic State group, killed 33 people near Turkey's border with Syria, including many Kurds. Kurdish rebels held the government responsible for the attack, claiming that the government had been too lenient on the jihadists, and two policemen were killed in an apparent response.
Turkey's air force conducted air raids against the IS group in Syria following the suicide bombing and then proceeded to strike PKK targets in northern Iraq and in southeast Turkey.
The renewed fighting between the PKK and the security forces has killed about 200 people since July, including around 85 soldiers and police officers. The fighting derailed the 2 1/2-year-old peace process with the Kurds. It comes amid increased political uncertainty in Turkey. The country is holding a new election on Nov. 1, following the ruling party's failure to form a coalition government after an election in June.
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Monday the rebels first fired on the soldiers and later detonated the bombs in the ambush. He said the troops were on a mission to clear the rugged terrain in Daglica of mines and explosives. Daglica, just a few kilometers from the Iraqi border, is a main crossing point for the rebels to launch attacks on Turkey from bases in northern Iraq.
"Our 16 martyred brothers were clearing the roads of land mines so that the people of the region could travel in peace," Davutoglu said.
He again vowed to press ahead with the fight against terror groups.
"We will continue our struggle against terrorism in a determined manner, without making any concessions on democracy or the rule of law," Davutoglu said.
"Those mountains will be cleared of the terrorists," he said. "The mountains, the plains, the highlands and the cities of this country will not be left in the hands of the terrorists."
Turkish security forces have frequently come under attack in Daglica. Separate attacks on military outposts in the mountainous region killed 12 soldiers in 2007 and eight others in 2012.
The military statement said three F-4 jets and four F-16 were carrying out operations against PKK targets since the attack on Daglica Sunday. It said six caves, two storage facilities, three shelters and 12 anti-aircraft machine guns were struck during the aerial operation.
The statement said none of the six wounded soldiers were in life-threatening condition.
Small protests denouncing the PKK erupted in several cities across Turkey soon after the military announced the 16 soldier's deaths, the state-run Anadolu news agency reported.
Earlier, Firat News, a website close to the rebels, claimed that 32 soldiers were killed in the ambush. It said the rebels hadn't sustained any casualties.
The PKK, which has been fighting for Kurdish autonomy in southeast Turkey, is considered a terrorist group by the United States, European Union and Turkey. Tens of thousands of people have died in the conflict since 1984.