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20 killed in clash in Turkey's troubled southeast, Kurds declare autonomy
ANKARA, Turkey (AP) ' A clash in a forest left 13 Turkish soldiers and seven Kurdish rebels dead Thursday in the country's rugged southeast, the military said. The rare daylight violence was the deadliest attack on troops in more than three years.
In response, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan held an emergency meeting in the capital of Ankara with top military and intelligence officials. Top army commanders and senior Cabinet members were sent to the southeast to assess the situation, Turkish media reported.
Thursday's attack is expected to escalate tensions in the Kurdish-dominated southeast, where frequent clashes and violent protests have undercut reconciliation efforts.
Hours after the clash, an umbrella group that includes Turkey's Kurdish party proclaimed Kurdish autonomy in Diyarbakir, the largest city in the southeast. It was unclear what practical effect such a declaration would have, although the Turkish government has repeatedly warned against such a move, which it views as a threat to national unity.
Kurdish rebels periodically cross the border from Iraq to stage attacks in their war for autonomy for Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast. Nearly 40,000 people have died in the conflict since the rebels began attacks in 1984.
Aysel Tugluk, a Kurdish lawmaker and co-chairman of the Democratic Society Congress, said the autonomy announcement was made on the basis of democracy and that the Kurdish people remained committed to "the national unity of Turkey's people." He insisted that Kurds were not seeking to break away from Turkish sovereignty but to have their own administration and assembly.
In Washington, the Obama administration expressed condolences to the families of Turkish soldiers killed in clashes with the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, and voiced solidarity with its NATO ally.
"The United States condemns in the strongest terms today's killing of Turkish soldiers," U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters. "We strongly support Turkey in its fight against terror and we'll continue to work with the government of Turkey to combat terrorism in all its forms."
Toner said the U.S. was sharing intelligence information on the rebels with Turkey.
The Turkish military said Thursday's battle erupted when the soldiers encountered the rebels near the village of Dolapdere in the southeastern Diyarbakir province.
"During the clash, 13 military personnel have been martyred as a result of a fire sparked by hand grenades thrown by terrorists," the military said.
Seven soldiers were also wounded, with two of them in critical condition, it said.
The military casualties were the highest since the rebels killed a dozen soldiers in an ambush along the Iraqi border in October 2007. That attack triggered a weeklong air-and-ground Turkish assault in early 2008 against Kurdish rebel bases in northern Iraq.
Earlier Thursday, Kurdish rebels kidnapped two workers building a military outpost in the eastern province of Tunceli ' the second kidnapping in less than a week. The guerrillas also kidnapped three other people Saturday, including two soldiers, at a roadblock in the southeast.
In May, the imprisoned leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, had warned that his forces would unleash a "big war" by July 15 if Turkey refuses to negotiate an end to the decades-old conflict following national elections in June.
Ocalan remains a powerful symbol to his fighters. Turkish leaders have confirmed some communications between state officials and Ocalan seeking a way to end the dispute with autonomy-seeking Kurdish rebels. But they refuse to negotiate with the rebels, who are branded as terrorists by Turkey and the West.
The attack Thursday came hours after lawmakers from a pro-Kurdish party and the government failed to reach solution to end a boycott of parliament by Kurdish deputies. Kurdish lawmakers say they will not take their oath of office until five pro-Kurdish lawmakers who are facing charges of ties to Kurdish rebels are released from jail.
Parliament Speaker Cemil Cicek reacted angrily to the rebel attack.
"It is a violent act," NTV television quoted Cicek as saying. "Everyone should determine their stand, either we choose democracy or those who spit blood."
Selahattin Demirtas, a senior Kurdish lawmaker, blamed the political deadlock for the increase in violence.
"We are very saddened," Demirtas said. "The young are paying the price for the lack of courage in politics."
Kurdish politicians are pushing for greater cultural and political rights for Kurds, who make up around 20 percent of Turkey's 74 million people.