The operation comes amid heightened concerns about new violence following a European court judgment that the rebels' imprisoned leader did not receive a fair trial.

The rebels - seven men and two women - were killed late on Friday in Tunceli province, 800km east of the capital Ankara, local officials said.

Automatic weapons, plastic explosives, grenades, and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher were seized in the operation, authorities said. A Syrian citizen was among those killed, officials added.

Military operation

The CNN-Turk news channel said about 10,000 Turkish soldiers were taking part in a massive military operation against the autonomy-seeking rebels. Private NTV television showed footage of en route military trucks, tanks, and helicopters.

Turkish authorities have not said
whether they will retry Ocalan

The rebels have recently heightened attacks in the region.

The military operation comes amid concerns that Thursday's European Court of Human Rights ruling that imprisoned Kurdish rebel chief Abdullah Ocalan did not receive a fair trial in 1999, could give new momentum to the rebels.

Turkey has not said if it will retry Ocalan. Justice Minister Cemil Cicek said on Saturday authorities were still evaluating the court decision.

"There's nothing to be worried about, no reason for speculation that if we don't do this or that, this will happen tomorrow," the semi-official Anatolia news agency quoted Cicek as saying.

EU membership

The country, which is scheduled to start membership talks with the European Union in October, is under pressure to broaden freedoms and grant greater rights to Kurds who are not recognised as a minority.

But a new retrial is likely to be extremely unpopular, with many Turks blaming Ocalan for an uprising that has killed more than 37,000 people since 1984.

Turkey is to start membership
talks with the EU in October

"There's no need to try him again or even to allow him to live," said Levent Ipek, a 40-year-old street peddler in Istanbul. "Many people were martyred because of him."

Turkish military officers have criticised the European court decision, while President Ahmet Necdet Sezer has said a retrial would not be possible until changes were made to Turkish law.

The pro-Kurdish Ozgur Politika newspaper said Ocalan welcomed the decision and expressed hope a retrial would be a chance for him to demand greater Kurdish rights. But many Turks fear he could try to use the trial to gain new momentum for his group.

Rebel division

The rebels are now believed to be divided between groups that favour a peaceful, democratic struggle for Kurdish rights and those who believe they should return to the battlefield.

There has been a recent increase in attacks by fighters, including an ambush on Friday that killed three Turkish soldiers in nearby Bingol province.

On Tuesday, Turkish soldiers exchanged fire with rebels in another clash in Tunceli that killed three rebels.

On Friday, assailants also threw a grenade at a police car in Agri province, near the Iranian border, injuring three police officers, Governor Yusuf Yavascan told Anatolia. He did not say who was suspected in that attack.