Three Turkish soldiers shot dead in 'terrorist' attack

Turkish soldiers stand guard as Syrian Kurdish refugees wait behind the border fences to cross into Turkey near the south-eastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province on Oct 17, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Turkish soldiers stand guard as Syrian Kurdish refugees wait behind the border fences to cross into Turkey near the south-eastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province on Oct 17, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

ISTANBUL (AFP) - Masked gunmen on Saturday shot dead three Turkish soldiers in the restive Kurdish-majority southeast of the country, the army said, blaming separatist "terrorists" for an attack that threatens to undermine a fragile ceasefire.

The three soldiers were shot dead on the street in the town of Yuksekova in Hakkari province of Turkey's extreme southeast bordering Iraq and Iran.

The attackers escaped but a security operation was underway to apprehend them, the official Anatolia agency said.

Reports said that the victims had been shot in the head, from behind, while walking in the centre of the town to collect electrical equipment from a police station.

There was no claim of responsibility for the attack. But in a statement the army blamed "three terrorists from the separatist terrorist organisation", in a clear reference to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which the military never mentions by name.

Some 40,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the three-decade-long insurgency waged by the outlawed PKK for Kurdish self-rule and greater rights in Turkey's southeast.

The PKK has largely observed a ceasefire since March 2013 as the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) seeks to thrash out a historic peace agreement with the rebels.

But there has been an upsurge in tensions in recent weeks over the government's cautious policy on helping the mainly Kurdish Syrian border town of Kobane, which has been besieged by jihadists of the Islamic State.

Late on Thursday night, the security forces shot dead three suspected PKK militants after they launched an attack on a power station in the Kagizman district of the eastern Kars region, Anatolia reported.

The armed wing of the PKK, the HPG, confirmed in a statement Saturday that three of its "guerrillas" had been killed in the clash.

The army also on Saturday barred entry to the eastern city of Tunceli following reports that a cemetery for slain PKK fighters was to be opened there.

Earlier this month, Turkish jets bombed Kurdish rebel targets in the southeast of the country for the first time since the ceasefire, in response to attacks on a military post.

Over 30 people were killed in deadly pro-Kurdish protests in Turkish cities this month against the government's stance on the Kobane standoff.

However the jailed leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, said in a statement this week that he remained hopeful that the peace process would be concluded successfully.

In its first reactions to the latest attack, the government insisted that the peace process would continue.

"The heinous attack will not deter us from making peace in our brotherly nation and it will not thwart the peace process," Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus wrote on Twitter.