By Ayla Jean Yackley
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Three Turkish soldiers were killed in clashes with Kurdish rebels near the Syrian border in southern Turkey on Thursday, the provincial governor's office said.
Separately, a provincial leader of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's ruling AK Party was shot dead late on Wednesday outside his home in Sirnak, near the frontier with Iraq, an official in the governor's office told Reuters.
In Hatay, fighting between a Turkish military unit and guerrillas belonging to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) erupted in the mountains in the district of Dortyol on Thursday morning, the statement said.
Dogan News Agency said four PKK militants were also killed in the clash, while one soldier was wounded. That report could not immediately be confirmed.
PKK attacks on Turkish military targets in a 27-year conflict usually occur in the country's mainly Kurdish provinces east of Hatay, but the Mediterranean province has been the scene of sporadic clashes in past years.
Hatay borders Syria and has absorbed thousands of refugees fleeing President Bashar al-Assad's 14-month crackdown against anti-government protesters and armed militants.
The PKK in March threatened to step up attacks against Turkey if its forces entered Syria after Erdogan, one of Assad's most vocal critics, mooted the possibility of establishing buffer zones within Syria to protect civilians. Turkey shelters almost 25,000 Syrian refugees.
The PKK threat signaled a possible renewed alliance between the PKK and Damascus, which backed the rebels in the 1980s and 1990s. It also shows the risks of a regional escalation in the Syrian conflict.
Turkey's Kurdish population is estimated at 14 million people, and Syria has about 1.7 million. Iraq, where the PKK leadership is based, is home to more than 4 million Kurds.
In Sirnak, an unidentified assailant shot dead Ali Kilinc, 48, the AK Party's deputy chairman for the province, an official in the governor's office told Reuters.
The PKK took up arms against Turkey in 1984 in a campaign for independence, and more than 40,000 people, mainly Kurds, have died in the conflict. The rebels have since scaled back their demands to cultural rights and political autonomy.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)