Turkey mourns 24 slain soldiers

SELCAN HACAOGLU - Associated Press
AP
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Turkish Armored Personnel Carriers drive on a mountain road near the Turkish-Iraq border in this image taken from TV Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2011. Turkish soldiers, air force bombers and helicopter gunships launched an incursion into Iraq on Wednesday, hours after Kurdish rebels killed 24 soldiers and wounded 18 others in multiple attacks along the border. (AP Photo/DHA, via APTN)

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Thousands of high school students marched in the streets of the Turkish capital on Thursday to denounce the killing of 24 soldiers by Kurdish rebels, and the military pressed ahead with its air and ground offensive against the insurgents across the Iraqi border.

Turkey began the offensive against the Kurdish rebels on Wednesday after they conducted their deadly attacks on military and police targets along the border.

Turkish news reports, without citing sources, said more than 20 Kurdish rebels have been killed in the offensive. But Dostdar Hamo, a spokesman for the Kurdistan Workers' Party in northern Iraq, told The Associated Press by telephone Thursday that only five rebels have been killed and seven others wounded since the start of the Turkish campaign. The figures given by either side cannot be independently verified.

About a dozen warplanes flew several bombing sorties out of two military bases in the country's southeast before sunrise Thursday, the state-run TRT television said. The television said one Turkish soldier was killed on Thursday by rebel fire as he rappelled from a helicopter. It was not clear whether the soldier was killed in Iraq.

Wednesday's killing of the 24 soldiers and the wounding of 18 was the deadliest one-day attack by the rebels since the mid-1990s, and it has outraged many in Turkey and fueled nationalist sentiment. The U.S. and NATO also have condemned it.

Thousands of high school students carrying Turkish flags marched throughout Ankara on Thursday and visited the mausoleum of the founder of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, in a show of solidarity.

"Tooth for tooth, blood for blood, vengeance!" students chanted in support of the military as they marched through the affluent Tunali Hilmi district. At one point, the students stopped traffic to sing the national anthem as some shopkeepers joined them and passers-by stood still in respect.

The youths also shouted: "Ankara wake up, honor your martyrs!"

The flag-draped coffins of the slain soldiers were being flown to several cities across the country on Thursday for burial. TRT television, citing unnamed local sources, said the rebels heavily relied on mortar fire during Wednesday's attack, and that along with their use of rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47 Kalashnikov assault rifles explained the high number of casualties.

The government was expected to brief the lawmakers about the ongoing military incursion into Iraq in a closed-door session later Thursday.

"Enough is enough, the government must allow all of us to fight them (the rebels)," said an angry taxi driver, Sedat Inci. Like many other taxi drivers, Inci had decorated his cab with red-and-white Turkish flags in support of the military's drive against the autonomy-seeking guerrillas.

Several newspapers condemned the rebels in banner headlines against a black background.

"24 martyrs, 74 million wounded," said the daily Posta, referring to Turkey's entire population.

The Yeni Safak newspaper's banner headline read: "Endless Pain."

In new violence on Thursday, suspected Kurdish rebels wounded three soldiers in a roadside bomb attack near the town of Altinova in southeastern Mus province, said Gov. Ali Cinar.

President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to retaliate against the rebels and imposed further pressure on Iraq and the Iraqi Kurdish administration to try to prevent rebel attacks from Iraqi soil.

The Kurdish provinces of northern Iraq are mostly stable and prosperous. But to Turkey, which has a large Kurdish minority, they also are an inspiration and a support base for the Kurdish rebels.

Turkey's Kurdish rebel conflict has killed tens of thousands of people since the insurgents took up arms for autonomy in the country's Kurdish-dominated southeast in 1984.

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Associated Press writer Yayha Barzanji in Sulaimaniyah, Iraq, contributed.