ISTANBUL — Turkey's military is ratcheting up its offensive against Kurdish fighters seeking autonomy in the southeast, with warplanes and helicopters pummeling the mountainous region with bombs, forcing many villagers to flee their homes. Analysts claim the action is a bid to squelch any Kurdish advance should Syria fall.
Fighting erupted last week when PKK fighters set up checkpoints around the town of Semdinli in the predominantly Kurdish southeast of Turkey.
Many villagers living in the mountainous rural region have been forced to flee their homes.
"Children were crying and in a terrible state, they wanted to get away," one woman said. "Every hour, every minute, every second there was a sound of cannons. They were bombing the area surrounding the village. We had to flee the village."
Thousands of Turkish soldiers have been drafted into the region. Reporting and access to the region is limited and, as a result, there have been no official figures on casualties.
The PKK, however, claims to have killed 49 soldiers and shot down two helicopters. But the army denies this, saying only two soldiers had died and that it had killed at least 37 rebels.
"There is a serious operation going on there," said Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay this week. "There is a strong operation continuing in the region."
The PKK, listed as a terrorist organization by Ankara and much of the international community, took up arms in Kurdish-majority southeastern Turkey in 1984, fighting for minority cultural rights and operating mainly from bases from neighboring northern Iraq.
International relations analyst Soli Ozel of Istanbul's Kadir Has University says the PKK appears to be gaining traction.
"The PKK are not running back. They are trying to hold their ground," Ozel said. "The city is blockaded by our authorities, therefore something very serious must be going on there. Particularly in view of the fact that there is a lot going on with Syrian Kurds. That is important because the PKK brother organization, let's say, is very effective in northern Syria."
The escalation in PKK operations coincides with Syrian Kurds seizing a number of towns last week from Syrian forces close to the Turkish border. Ankara voiced concern the region could fall under control of a Democratic Union Party which is accused of having links to the PKK.
Metehan Demir, a defense journalist and Ankara bureau chief for the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet, says the PKK may be inspired by events of the Arab Spring.
"Hundreds of militants try to capture a small city in an effort to show this area as a place of freedom, where similar things could happen in Turkey, like Tunisia or Syria of Libya," Demir said. "But of course Turkey will not allow such activities, therefore clashes are very, very tough."
With the ongoing fighting with the PKK occurring close to Turkey's border with Iran, questions are being raised about how such large numbers of rebels are entering Turkey undetected.
Bilateral relations between Tehran and Ankara have markedly deteriorated over Ankara's strong support for Syrian rebels against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad - a key Iranian ally.
A pro-government Syrian newspaper this week reported that Tehran had warned Ankara of serious repercussions if it intervened militarily in Syria.
International relations expert Ozel pointed out that Tehran in the past has used the PKK as a means of pressure on Ankara by allowing the rebels to use its territory.
"It's not all that surprising if the Iranians are annoyed with Turkey vis-a-vis Syria, maybe going back to the old days of assisting the PKK so long as it fits its purposes," Ozel said. "They've done it in the past until the late 90s."
Observers warn the escalation in PKK operations in Turkey is adding a new destabilizing ingredient in an already increasingly unstable region, with various unresolved conflicts threatening to merge.