( Reuters ) - Turkish soldiers hunted for Kurdish rebels in rugged hillsides near the Iraqi border on Tuesday as part of an offensive against the guerrillas behind a series of deadly attacks on Turkish forces.
Witnesses saw a plume of smoke rise above a mountain in Sirnak province after an attack helicopter flew over rebel positions early on Tuesday. A convoy of up to 40 army vehicles headed east in brilliant autumn sunshine towards the border.
Three Turkish soldiers have been killed in the past 24 hours in the area. A fourth died on Monday in Tunceli province hundreds of km (miles) to the north in a blast triggered by a rebel landmine.
Turkey has massed up to 100,000 troops, backed by tanks, artillery, warplanes and combat helicopters along the Iraqi border in preparation for a possible cross-border incursion into northern Iraq where some 3,000 rebels are believed to be hiding.
The Sabah newspaper said some 250 rebels of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) were trying to escape Turkish security forces in the border area. But the figure could not be independently confirmed.
While Ankara kept up military pressure on the rebels, it says it still hopes to avoid a full-scale cross-border operation. But despite its appeals U.S. and Iraqi forces have shown little appetite for tackling the PKK in northern Iraq.
Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani told the Milliyet newspaper in an interview on Tuesday he wanted the PKK to lay down its weapons, but he also criticised Turkey for refusing to speak with his autonomous Kurdish administration in northern Iraq on the issue.
Ankara insists on speaking only with the central government in Baghdad and suspects Barzani of plotting to create an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq, a move it fears could stoke separatism among Turkey's own large ethnic Kurdish population.
The United States and Iraq have urged Turkey to avoid a major military incursion, fearing this would destabilise the wider region.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan is due to hold talks in Washington with U.S. President George W. Bush next Monday.