Turkish helicopters hit northern Iraq villages - TV

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DIYARBAKIR, Turkey, Nov 13 (Reuters) Turkish military helicopters bombed villages in northern Iraq in strikes directed against Kurdish rebels but nobody was killed in the attacks, two Turkish television channels reported today.

The unconfirmed reports came as four Turkish soldiers were killed in a clash with militants of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in southeast Turkey near the Iraqi border.

A lieutenant and three privates died in the attack in Sirnak province, where Turkey has massed large numbers of troops in preparation for a possible major incursion into northern Iraq to root out PKK rebels believed hiding there.

They were the first casualties of the conflict on Turkish territory since November 7 when troops killed three Kurdish guerrillas after a PKK attack on a paramilitary police post in which one soldier died.

CNN Turk television, quoting Iraqi officials, said the villages bombed in northern Iraq had been empty at the time.

An estimated 3,000 rebels use northern Iraq as a base for attacks in Turkey. The PKK took up arms in 1984 with the aim of creating an ethnic homeland in mainly Kurdish southeast Turkey.

Nearly 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict.

A senior Kurdish security official in northern Iraq told Reuters he was not aware of any Turkish attacks today. A PKK official, reached by telephone at his hideout in the Qandil mountains, also said he could not confirm any Turkish attacks.

Ankara claims the right of self-defence under international law to attack the PKK inside Iraqi territory and is known to have staged limited cross-border operations against the PKK.

Asked in parliament about the report that PKK premises in northern Iraq had been bombed, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said: ''I am not aware (of that).'' After meeting US President George W Bush last week to discuss the issue, Erdogan said the army would go ahead with an incursion against the militants in Iraq, but did not say when.

The armed forces chief, General Yasar Buyukanit, said last Friday the military was ready and waiting for the government to order the cross-border operation, according to media reports.

The death of the four soldiers in Sirnak province is likely to increase pressure on the government to authorise a cross-border operation, despite logistical difficulties as winter sets in across the ruggedly mountainous region.

REUTERS SKB VC1828

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