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Turkey bombs Syria and Iraq as war escalates with Kurdish militants

Pro-Kurd YPG condemns 'treacherous attack' as Turkey carries out first strikes in Iraqi's Sinjar against PKK affiliates
A US soldier inspects damage to a YPG base in Syria after an attack by Turkish forces (AFP)

Turkish warplanes bombed Kurdish militants in Iraq's Sinjar region and in northeastern Syria on Tuesday, killing around 70 fighters in a widening campaign against groups affiliated with the outlawed PKK, announced the the military in a statement.

The air strikes in Syria targeted the YPG - a key component of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which are backed by the United States and have been closing in on the Islamic State (IS) group bastion of Raqqa.

Twenty eight people died in the Syria strike, including several media workers, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The operation showed the challenges facing the US-led campaign to defeat IS in Syria and risked increasing tension between NATO allies Washington and Ankara over Kurdish combatants who have been crucial in driving back IS.

The US State Department said it is "deeply concerned" by the Turkish air strikes.

"We are very concerned, deeply concerned that Turkey conducted air strikes earlier today in northern Syria as well as northern Iraq without proper coordination either with the United States or the broader global coalition to defeat" IS, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.

"We have expressed those concerns to the government of Turkey directly."

The Pentagon offered a more muted response.

"We don't want our partners hitting other partners," a senior US defence official told AFP.

"We've got to figure out exactly who got hit. We don't know yet. We do know where the strikes were, but we don't know exactly who is dead."

Air strikes have been carried out.... to destroy these terror hubs

- Turkish statement

A US military officer accompanied YPG commanders on a tour of the sites hit by Turkey later on Tuesday, a Reuters witness said, demonstrating the close partnership.

"As a result of the barbaric strikes by the Turkish warplanes at dawn today against the YPG centre ... 20 fighters were martyred and 18 others wounded, three of them critically," said spokesman Redur Xelil.

A Kurdish militant flies a flag at the site of a Turkish attack on Sinjar (screengrab)
The Turkish military said the two regions it struck had become "terror hubs" and the aim of the bombardment was to prevent the PKK from sending weapons and explosives for attacks inside Turkey.

"To destroy these terror hubs which threaten the security, unity and integrity of our country and our nation and as part of our rights based on international law, air strikes have been carried out... and terrorist targets have been struck with success," the Turkish army said in a statement.

The aerial bombardment was carried out around 2am local time (2300 GMT), it added.

The YPG said in a statement that its headquarters in Mount Karachok near Syria's frontier with Turkey had been hit, including a media centre, a local radio station, communications facilities and military institutions.

Baghdad condemnations 

Meanwhile, the Iraqi government condemned the Turkish air strikes in northern Iraq on Tuesday.

"The Iraqi government condemns and rejects the strikes carried out by Turkish aircraft on Iraqi territory," spokesman Saad al-Hadithi said in a statement.

Hadithi said Baghdad considered the overnight raid on Sinjar as "a violation of international law and of Iraqi sovereignty".

He also said the Iraqi government saw such uncoordinated cross-border air strikes as "negatively affecting the efforts of Iraq and the international community in the war against terrorism".

Five members of Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces, which are also deployed in Sinjar, were killed, and nine wounded in one of the Turkish air strikes, according to the Peshmerga ministry, apparently by accident.

It said the attack was "unacceptable" but blamed the PKK for being there and demanded the group withdraw from Sinjar.

Turkey, whose relations with Baghdad have been icy recently, wants Iraq to do more to root out the PKK, which has bases and fighters in northern Iraq.

Hadithi argued, however, that Turkey should not take the issue into its own hands.

"The solution to the problem of the presence on Iraqi territory of PKK members must be coordinated with the Iraqi government," he said.

'New Qandil'

Turkey has regularly bombed the mountainous border area between Iraq and Turkey where PKK militants are based since a ceasefire broke down in July 2015. But Tuesday's raid was the first time they have targeted its affiliate in the Sinjar area, a separate group to the YPG.

The PKK established a presence in Sinjar after coming to the aid of its Yazidi population when Islamic State militants overran the area in the summer of 2014 and killed and captured thousands of Yazidis.

The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has said he will not allow Sinjar, about 115km from the Turkish border, to become a "new Qandil," referring to a PKK stronghold near the borders of Turkey, Iraq and Iran.

The presence of a PKK affiliate in Sinjar is also rejected by Kurdish authorities who run their own autonomous region in northern Iraq and enjoy good relations with Turkey.

Designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union, the PKK has waged a three-decade insurgency against the Turkish state for Kurdish autonomy. More than 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict, most of them Kurds.

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