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Turkey denies targeting Syrian Kurdish group

Yasin Akgul, AFP | The resumption of hostilities between Turkey's military and the Kurdish PKK has triggered protests in Istanbul

The Syrian Kurdish YPG group on Monday accused Turkey of targeting its positions inside Syria, a charge Ankara denied amid growing tensions between Turkey and Kurdish groups in the region.

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In a statement released Monday, the Syrian Kurdish YPG (Kurdish People's Protection Units) said the Turkish army targeted one of the group’s vehicles in the border village of Til Findire, east of the border town of Kobane, where the Kurds handed a major defeat to the Islamic State (IS) group earlier this year.

The YPG, a Syrian group affiliated with the banned Turkish PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), has been one of the most effective groups battling Islamic State militants in Syria, but Turkey fears they could revive an insurgency against Ankara in pursuit of an independent state.

Turkey however denied that it was targeting Kurdish positions inside Syria and has launched an investigation into the claims, a foreign ministry official told reporters on Monday.

"The ongoing military operation seeks to neutralise imminent threats to Turkey's national security and continues to target Islamic State in Syria and the PKK in Iraq," a government official told Reuters. “The PYD [the political wing of the YPG], along with others, remains outside the scope of the current military effort."

Reporting from the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir, Turkey’s largest Kurdish-dominated city, FRANCE 24’s Jasper Mortimer said Turkey’s Western partners in the fight against the IS group will be “hoping that it’s an unfortunate mistake. Until now, Turkey has been attacking with artillery and planes IS positions in Syria. In Iraq, they’ve been attacking Kurdish fighters. But they have not been attacking the Kurds in Syria because the Kurds have been leading the battle against the IS group,” explained Mortimer. “Washington will not be pleased to hear that Turkey is attacking the most effective fighting force in Syria.”

The latest allegations come as NATO holds an emergency meeting Monday at Turkey’s request to discuss the situation.

Turkey has no plans to send ground troops into Syria

Long a reluctant member of the US-led coalition against the Islamic State (IS) group, Turkey made a dramatic turnaround this week by granting the alliance access to its air bases and launching air raids against both the jihadist movement and the PKK.

It has no plans to send ground troops into Syria and the air strikes there are meant to give support to moderate Syrian rebels fighting the IS group, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was quoted as saying by the Hurriyet newspaper.

He said the PYD could "have a place in the new Syria" if it did not disturb Turkey, cut all relations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's administration and cooperated with opposition forces.

But the relapse into serious conflict between Turkey and the PKK has raised doubts about the future of Ankara’s peace efforts with its own Kurdish foes that started in 2012, after 28 years of bloodshed, but have recently stalled.

“This is very distressing to Turks, who have benefitted from the ceasefire for two-and-a-half years now,” explained Mortimer, noting that the collapse of the ceasefire means the PKK, “may go back to detonating bombs in public places".

Turkey continued overnight airstrikes on PKK targets in northern Iraq a day after a car bomb and roadside explosives hit a passing military vehicle on a highway near Diyarbakir, the Turkish army said. Kurdish militants then opened fire on the vehicle with rifle fire, it said. Two soldiers were killed and four were wounded.

At least six people had been detained in connection with the attack, Dogan news agency reported.

The renewed conflict has sparked protests in parts of Istanbul as well as the southeast. A police officer was killed in clashes in the city's volatile Gazi district on Sunday, the third day of violence there following the death of a leftist activist during police raids on suspected militants.

The PKK, which Ankara and Washington deem a terrorist group, has also targeted police officers in the southeast and elsewhere, accusing the Islamist-rooted central government of covertly helping IS militants to the detriment of Syrian Kurds.

Opposition politicians and critics accuse President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of taking up the campaign against the IS group as political cover to clamp down on Kurds.

US denies connection

A senior US diplomat condemned recent PKK attacks but denied any link between Turkey's new strikes on Kurdish militants and its newfound boldness in tackling the IS group, which has seized large expanses of neighbouring Syria and Iraq.

"There is no connection between these air strikes against PKK and recent understandings to intensify US-Turkey cooperation against ISIL," Brett McGurk, the deputy special presidential envoy for the coalition to counter the IS group, said on Twitter, using one of the jihadist group’s acronyms.

White House spokesman Ben Rhodes, on an official visit to Kenya with President Barack Obama, told a news conference in Nairobi: "The US of course recognises the PKK specifically as a terrorist organisation. And so, again, Turkey has a right to take action related to terrorist targets. And we certainly appreciate their interest in accelerating efforts against ISIL."

Turkey said on Saturday its decision to enter the battle against the IS group, soon after an IS suicide bomber killed 32 people, mainly Kurds, in the Turkish town of Suruc, would help create "a safe zone" across the nearby border in northern Syria.

Turkish opposition leaders say they are concerned that Erdogan wants the new attacks on the PKK to whip up anti-Kurdish sentiment before a possible early election later this year.

The Islamist-based AK Party he founded has until late August to find a junior coalition partner or face an early election.

The AKP lost its single-party majority last June for the first time in more than a decade, in part due to the success of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), which entered parliament for the first time.

"One of the aims of the air, land and media operations carried out right now is to undermine the HDP in early elections," HDP head Selahattin Demirtas said on Twitter.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)

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