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Funeral honors Turkish soldiers killed in clash with rebels

By Ivan Watson and Yesim Comert, CNN
Turkish prime minister Tayyip Erdogan, pictured Friday, has said the attacks will not change the nation's direction.
Turkish prime minister Tayyip Erdogan, pictured Friday, has said the attacks will not change the nation's direction.
  • Military funeral honors 11 soldiers killed in clashes with Kurdish rebels
  • Turkish military: Soldier killed in fighting in eastern Elazig province
  • The deadly clashes are the latest in a round of intense fighting in the area
  • Scores of soldiers, rebels killed in recent months
  • Kurdistan
  • Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey (CNN) -- Soldiers in helmets carried the flag-draped coffins Sunday of 11 Turkish soldiers killed in a single bloody day of fighting with Kurdish rebels.

As the somber funeral ceremony was under way, the Turkish military's website announced that one more soldier had been killed in fighting in Turkey's eastern Elazig province.

Recent weeks have seen an escalation in the longrunning conflict between the Turkish state and rebels from the Kurdistan Workers' Party, also known as the PKK.

In a speech before Sunday's funeral ceremony for the 11 slain soldiers, Turkey's prime minister said he would not succumb to a new "spiral of violence."

"Such bloody attacks will not change the direction of our country and our nation," Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in his televised remarks. "It will not be able to divert Turkey from its target of growing and becoming a strong and esteemed state."

On Sunday, a military band played a funeral dirge as Turkey's prime minister, cabinet ministers, the commander of the Turkish military and ambassadors from a number of European countries lined up on the tarmac of an airbase in the eastern Turkish city of Van for the ceremony.

Many Turkish television channels broadcast live video of the coffins being loaded onto military transport planes.

The Turkish military says rebels attacked one of its units near Turkey's border with Iraq in the pre-dawn hours on Saturday, killing nine soldiers. Two more soldiers were later killed by landmines nearby, the military said.

The PKK, meanwhile, claims its fighters damaged a Turkish military helicopter during the battle.

Turkish warplanes retaliated by carrying out air-strikes against suspected rebel targets on the Iraqi side of the border.

A spokesman for the PKK operating out of northern Iraq told CNN in an e-mail that a 15-year-old girl was killed in one of the air-raids Saturday night in Hakurk, a mountainous Iraqi region where the PKK has long been active.

The PKK has been battling the Turkish government since the early 1980s.

Initially, the movement fought to carve out a separate homeland for Turkey's ethnic Kurdish minority, which makes up nearly 18 percent of the Turkish population, according to the CIA World Factbook.

More than 30,000 people, mostly ethnic Kurds, have been killed during the conflict.

In recent years, the rebels say they have given up their demands for an independent Kurdish state, and are instead fighting for more linguistic and cultural freedoms.

Though the Kurds represent Turkey's largest ethnic minority, their language has historically been suppressed by the Turkish state, which long referred to Kurds as "mountain Turks."

The upsurge in fighting threatens a recent, much-heralded Turkish government initiative aimed at improving relations with the Kurds.

The so-called "democratic opening" included the creation of a Kurdish-language state TV station and pledged to allow "Kurdish studies" for the first time in Turkey at the university level.

But PKK leaders have questioned the sincerity of this initiative.

In a press release e-mailed to CNN, the group explained why it had ended its ceasefire and started a mid-intensity war June 1.

The press release said the government was cracking down on peaceful political protests and claimed Kurdish children and elected Kurdish politicians were being jailed without just cause as part of the "Political Genocide of the Kurdish people."

The Turkish military announced last week that it had seen an increase in the frequency and range of Kurdish rebel attacks in recent months.