At least eight Turkish soldiers died Wednesday in a roadside bombing widely blamed on the Kurdish party that is aiding the U.S.-led fight against the Islamic State, deepening an internal political crisis and raising new questions about Turkey’s role in the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamist extremist movement.
The attack was the latest incident in a 72-hour surge in bloodletting that included the deaths of four other Turkish troops in strikes also attributed to the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, and an Islamic State suicide bombing inside adjacent Syria of a headquarters of the PKK’s Syrian branch that killed dozens of its fighters.
The unrest in Turkey’s Kurd-dominated region, for which the PPK has been fighting for independence for decades, appeared to seal a decision by President Tayyip Erdogan’s Peace and Justice Party to end talks with opposition groups, including Kurdish parties, on forming a coalition government after inconclusive June parliamentary polls.
Erdogan’s party, known by its Turkish acronym AKP, suffered a stunning setback in the elections, placing first in the balloting, but losing its parliamentary majority and denying the president the ability to expand his powers by rewriting the constitution. Moreover, a primarily Kurdish party seen as closely tied to the PKK won enough votes to give it seats in the legislature for the first time.
Amidst the political turmoil, Erdogan’s caretaker government reached an agreement in July with the United States allowing the U.S.-led international coalition that has been striking the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq to use Turkish airbases. The accord also brought Turkish aircraft into the bombing campaign.
But in a move analysts saw as aimed at reclaiming support for the AKP, Erdogan used the agreement to unleash Turkish airstrikes against PKK strongholds inside Iraq. While Turkish warplanes launched a handful of attacks on Islamic State positions, they’ve staged at least 100 strikes on the PKK.
Since those airstrikes began on July 24, Turkish state media say that at least 55 security personnel have been killed and nearly 200 wounded in retaliatory attacks by the PKK inside Turkey, putting the future of a ceasefire signed in 2012 in grave doubt.
The roadside bombing blamed on the PKK took place Wednesday afternoon in the southeastern province of Siirt. It killed at least eight Turkish soldiers and wounded one other while they were on highway security duty, the Turkish General Staff said in a statement. It wasn’t immediate disclosed if the troops were in vehicles or on foot.
The blast came just hours after the first Turkish airstrikes on PKK targets along the border with Iraq in about a week.
In a speech to local municipal officials on Wednesday, Erdogan asserted that the violence made it more difficult to form a new government at a time of “terror,” and he accused the PKK of “trying to divide the country.”
He highlighted recent steps that the government had taken to reduce tensions with the Kurds, who are divided between Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. They’ve included removing restrictions on Kurdish language television broadcasts, abolishing an emergency law that many Kurds decried as draconian and increasing government investments in Kurdish areas.
But the recent PKK attacks, he said, were forcing him to reconsider reconciliation with the separatist group that Turkey has battled since the 1980s.
"I am either on the side of my state or a terrorist organization,” he said. “You will make the choice. If we are going to die, we will die once, but die like a man. Terrorists will lay down arms. They will not only lay down arms, but also bury them under concrete."
The violence threatens to seriously complicate the Obama administration’s efforts to fight the Islamic State inside Syria, where the United States has provided strong air support for the PKK’s Syrian branch, the People’s Protection Units.
Known by the Kurdish acronym of YPG, the Kurdish group has emerged as the most effective force fighting the Islamic State in Syria, capturing territory along the Turkish border with the help of U.S.-led airstrikes. Erdogan’s government is greatly unnerved by the YPG’s successes, fearing they could lead to the creation of a rump Kurdish state.
The Islamic State struck at the YPG on Wednesday with a massive suicide truck bomb attack on one of the group’s headquarters in the Syrian border city of Qamishli, killing scores of its fighters, reportedly including several commanders and political leaders.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect date for the start of Turkish air strikes on PKK positions in Iraq. Those strikes began on July 24.
McClatchy special correspondent Duygu Guvenc in Ankara contributed to this report.