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Troops cross the border in pursuit of Kurdish rebels, which could hike tensions in the north.

Turkish troops clashed with Kurdish militants in the snowy mountains of northern Iraq on Friday after staging a surprise land invasion, the most serious offensive in years in Turkey's 24-year conflict with antigovernment rebels.

Iraq's government reacted angrily, demanding the troops' withdrawal and accusing Turkey of destroying five bridges in violation of its vow to target only rebel bases.

The White House confirmed it knew in advance of the invasion, which could inflame ethnic tensions in what has been the most peaceful region of Iraq. Iraqi Kurds sympathize with their Turkish brethren's quest for autonomy and want to expand Iraq's own autonomous Kurdish region. But Arabs in the north fear greater Kurdish clout will sideline them.

There were conflicting accounts on the scope of the operation, which began Thursday night. Turkish media said 10,000 troops were on the move and had gone about six miles into Iraq to pursue Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, guerrillas, who use the border region to launch raids on Turkish forces.

The media indicated about 60 tanks had crossed the border, but some had returned to Turkey by Friday afternoon. The operation reportedly centered on the Hakurk region south of the Turkish city of Cukurca.

Rebels said the Turkish claims were exaggerated, and they said two Turkish troops had been killed in clashes. "We don't think there are as many as 10,000. Probably a lot less," said Fozdar Aresta, a rebel leader.

Aresta said that Thursday's aerial bombardments had been "very heavy" and that clashes continued Friday. "We have the men and weaponry to face them," he said.

The Turkish military said five of its soldiers and 24 rebels had died in a clash inside Iraq and estimated at least 20 more rebels were killed by artillery and helicopter gunships.

There was no way to independently confirm either side's claims.

Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said the military "will rapidly return (to Turkey) as soon as it reaches its aim," which he said was the elimination of PKK hideouts.