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Turkey’s Air Force Strikes Kurdish Separatists in Iraq

Selcan Hacaoglu

(Bloomberg) --

Turkey’s air force conducted one of its biggest airstrikes against Kurdish separatists in northern Iraq, in a show of military might coinciding with its growing involvement in regional conflicts.

Dozens of Turkish warplanes, armed drones, mid-air refueling and airborne communication aircraft were dispatched from bases across the country to participate in overnight attacks against 81 hideouts used by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK, the Defense Ministry said Monday. It characterized the offensive as retaliation for recent militant assaults on the army.

The rare use of a variety of planes and drones in northern Iraq signaled Turkey’s readiness to act beyond the country’s borders -- and was carried out just two days after the military conducted an air and naval drill in the Mediterranean that reached as far as Libya.

Under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey has been expanding its military footprint in the region with the aim of protecting its perceived interests. Its actions have complicated relations with Russia and Iran, which have backed opposing sides in Syria’s civil war, as well as with Cyprus and Greece, over competing claims to natural resources in the Mediterranean.

Libya Talks

Turkey’s escalated involvement in Libya in recent months has further strained ties with Russia, because of their support for rival forces. Against this background, top Russian officials postponed a visit to Turkey at the last minute on Sunday.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Monday that postponing the talks was a joint decision to allow time for the preparation of a comprehensive peace plan that could win the approval of the UN-recognized government in Tripoli, which is backed by Turkey. He ruled out any “problems with the Russians,” adding that a deal between Turkey and Russia alone wouldn’t solve the Libyan conflict.

The Turkish intervention swung the war decisively in the direction of the administration of Fayez al-Sarraj, helping to push the Moscow-backed forces of eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar from the west of the country.

“There is a need to come up with a plan that can receive support of the legitimate government” led by Sarraj, Cavusoglu told a joint news conference after talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Istanbul. “We’ve decided to continue work to prepare the ground for an agreement, including steps to ensure a lasting cease-fire.”

Turkey and Iran share the same view on Libya, Zarif said without elaborating.

Cavusoglu urged Iran to help Turkey combat terrorism, apparently referring to Turkey’s long-standing demand that Tehran agree to joint operations against PKK bases inside Iran.

Turkey ratcheted up its pressure on the Kurdish militants after Kurdish forces affiliated with the PKK won U.S. backing in Syria, where they led the campaign to rout Islamic State.

(Updates with remarks from Turkish foreign minister in sixth paragraph)

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