The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has vowed to expand operations against the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) as fallout from the deaths of 13 Turkish soldiers and police officers abducted by the militant group continued to reverberate at home and abroad.

The bodies of 13 victims, 12 shot in the head and one who died of a bullet wound to his shoulder, were discovered in a cave complex in Gare in Kurdish-run northern Iraq during a Turkish military operation designed to free them, officials said on Sunday. The PKK said the hostages had been killed in Turkish airstrikes.

All of the dead men had been kidnapped in Turkey during 2015 and 2016, after peace talks between Ankara and PKK leaders broke down, plunging the country’s south-east into renewed violence.

The deaths have caused shock waves in Turkey, where the government sought to deflect blame for the failed rescue operation and whip up nationalistic fervour with a wave of arrests of members of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic party (HDP) over alleged PKK links.

Opposition parties have accused the government of failing to negotiate a peaceful release, even though they had previously raised the issue of the captured men in parliament.

“We will not give the terrorists a chance,” Erdoğan told his ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) in a speech in the Black Sea city of Trabzon on Tuesday. “We will expand our operations into areas where threats are still dense. We will stay in the areas we secure as long as necessary to prevent similar attacks again.”

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The PKK, which has waged an insurgency against the Turkish state since the 80s, is designated as a terrorist group by Turkey, the US and the EU. However, western support for PKK-affiliated forces fighting Isis over the border in Syria has strained relations between Ankara and Washington in recent years.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on stage with a Turkish flag beside him
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during a speech in Trabzon on Tuesday in which he promised to expand operations against the PKK. Photograph: Anadolu agency/Getty

Erdoğan lashed out at the US on Monday and his ministers summoned the US ambassador after the state department’s perceived initial hesitance to blame the PKK for the deaths. The president repeated his complaint in Tuesday’s speech, saying Turkey had not received enough international solidarity over the killings.

Turkey has stepped up operations against the PKK since last summer, when it launched Operation Claw-Eagle and Operation Claw-Tiger on suspected PKK installations across northern Iraq, with the cooperation of the area’s autonomous Kurdistan regional government (KRG). According to the conflict monitor Airwars, more Iraqi civilians were killed in 2020 as a result of the Turkey-PKK conflict than at any time since 2015.

More than 700 people have been arrested in Turkey since Monday for alleged PKK support, including the HDP’s provincial and district chairs, raising fears of a new, and possibly final, crackdown on the party.

The political fallout could raise the stakes in what analysts say are efforts by the ruling coalition to create a rift between the HDP and other opposition parties that had worked together to defeat Erdoğan in mayoral races in 2019.



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