Turkish military officials say seven soldiers and at least 79 Kurdish rebels have been killed since a Turkish ground offensive into northern Iraq began late Thursday. The rebels dispute the claim saying 22 soldiers were killed. Ankara accuses Kurdish Workers Party separatists of using bases in Iraq to launch attacks against government troops in Turkey. Dorian Jones has details from Istanbul.

Turkish ground forces backed by fighter planes and helicopter gun-ships are continuing their operation against bases of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) in northern Iraq.

Both sides are making conflicting claims over casualties, but it is impossible to independently verify them because of the mountainous and sparsely populated region where the fighting is taking place.

On Turkish television, coffins bearing the bodies of Turkish soldiers were shown on the tarmac of an unspecified airport.

The Iraqi government claims the operation is an infringement on its territorial integrity. But Turkish Foreign minister Ali Babacan on Saturday defended the incursion.

He said the only target is the terrorist PKK organization. He said Turkey strongly defends the territorial integrity and political unity of Iraq.

No official figure has been given on the size of the incursion or its duration, although Turkish media reports claim up to 10,000 soldiers have entered Iraq.

A statement by the Turkish army, released on its web page, criticized the media for exaggerating the number of soldiers involved, claiming it has caused unnecessary international tension. The Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on Friday tried to allay such concerns.

He said once the military achieves its goal of destroying the PKK's logistical and psychological support, Turkish forces will immediately withdraw.

But pressure is growing on Turkey amid concerns the incursion could destabilize Iraq. U.S Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice advised caution.

"Stability and progress for Iraq is in the interests of Turkey and so everyone should keep in mind that nothing should be done to destabilize what is a fragile, but improving situation in Iraq," she said.

Turkey claims the operation is necessary ahead of an expected spring offensive by the Kurdish rebels. Ankara says up to 3,000 PKK members are using the semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdish enclave as a base to launch attacks against Turkey.

The PKK has been fighting for autonomy in Turkey's mainly Kurdish southeast since 1984. Last autumn, about 50 Turkish soldiers and civilians were killed in a spate of PKK attacks. Until now Turkish operations against the rebels have been largely confined to air strikes, aided by U.S. intelligence.