ANKARA, Turkey -- Turkish forces killed 15 female Kurdish rebel fighters in clashes in southeast Turkey, officials said Saturday, in what is believed to be the largest one-day casualty toll for women since their guerrilla group began fighting for autonomy nearly 28 years ago.
The clashes occurred in a mainly Kurdish province of Bitlis, and in addition to the women it killed a government-paid village guard helping Turkish forces and wounded three others, the government said. The private Dogan news agency said the clashes occurred all day Friday.
The PKK, which is fighting for autonomy in Turkey's mainly Kurdish southeast, was born out of Marxist ideology and believes in equality between men and women. It is believed to have several female units. Female PKK militants carried out suicide bombings in 1990s, killing dozens of troops and civilians.
Many female fighters have been killed alongside male comrades in clashes, but Saturday's toll was the highest number of female PKK casualties killed in clashes at any one time.
Earlier this month, unconfirmed Turkish media reports said eight female fighters were killed in an avalanche in neighboring northern Iraq, where the rebels maintain bases that launch hit-and-run attacks on Turkish targets.
The clashes in Bitlis coincided with an upsurge in fighting between the rebels and the security forces. At least seven Turkish security force members and 24 Kurdish rebels – including the 15 women – have been killed in fighting this week. Spring is the time when fighting picks up as snow melts from mountain passes, which the rebels use to sneak into the country from Iraq.
The PKK, considered a terrorist organization by the European Union and the United States, took up arms in 1984. The conflict has killed tens of thousands of people since then.
A government campaign to reconcile with Kurds – who make up around 20 percent of Turkey's 74 million people – by granting them more rights stalled in 2009 amid a surge in fighting.
The government has also acknowledged that officials have held secret talks with the PKK, but has since vowed to maintain its military drive until the group lays down arms.
However, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other government officials have left the door open for dialogue with Kurdish groups not involved in violence.
Still, Kurdish politicians accuse the government of insincerity, citing police roundups of Kurdish activists, journalists and others suspected of rebel links.