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Turkey: Kurdish Militants Believed Behind Latest Bombings

  • Jeremy Bransten --> Turkish forensic officers examine blast site in Marmaris on August 28 (epa) PRAGUE, August 29, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Turkey's Mediterranean coast and its largest city, Istanbul, have been hit by a series of bombs in the past three days.

The deadliest blast, on August 28, killed three Turks and wounded dozens of people -- including Iranian, Russian, Israeli, and German tourists -- in the resort town of Antalya. A Kurdish militant group calling itself the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) has claimed responsibility for the blasts, and the authorities believe they are responsible.

The TAK first sprang to public attention in Turkey in 2004. And that, Turkish authorities say, is no accident.
"They do deny that they have any links to the PKK, but it's widely
known and accepted that in fact they operate under the PKK umbrella."

At the time, the better-known Kurdish militant group, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), announced the end of its five-year cease-fire. The PKK said it was resuming hostilities against Turkish security forces in the country's southeast after failing to win political concessions from the government.

Amberin Zaman, the Turkey correspondent for the London-based weekly "The Economist," told RFE/RL from Istanbul that the TAK "are widely believed to be the urban guerilla arm" of the PKK.

"In other words, while the PKK carries out its operations in the countryside, against Turkish security forces, these people tend to focus on civilian targets in urban areas, in the big cities, generally in the west of the country, in big cities like Istanbul, Ankara, like Izmir," she said. "They do deny that they have any links to the PKK, but it's widely known and accepted that in fact they operate under the PKK umbrella."

Attacking Tourists

The Freedom Falcons, through their website, recently warned that tourism and economic targets were among the group's priorities. Zaman said these latest attacks appear to follow through on that warning. And they mirror previous strikes by the group.

"Very often, as they did in Marmaris, they'll plant a bomb on a minibus that would be typically carrying tourists and then detonate it with a remote-controlled device," Zaman said. "Or they'll put bombs in garbage cans, again as they did in Marmaris in two separate locations on the main boulevard, where all the cafes and bars are. So, yes, it's typically the way they operate."

So what are the Freedom Falcons' demands? "They basically say that the reason they're carrying out these attacks is in retaliation for Turkish army operations against the Kurdish people," Zaman said.

They are fighting "against the brutality, as they call it, exercised by the Turkish state against the Kurdish people," she added. "They say they won't stop until Turkey stops the war in the southeast against the Kurds. They won't stop until Turkey releases the captured PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan and [they say] they won't stop until the Kurds are accorded full cultural and political rights."

Victim of the bombing in Antalya on August 28 (epa)

Although Turkish authorities face other militant groups, including radical Islamists and Marxist-Leninists, these latest attacks point to the TAK, according to Zaman, for yet another reason.

"The attacks coincided with the change of command in the Turkish army, with a very hawkish general taking charge of the Turkish armed forces," she noted. "Many believe this was a message to him that 'if you act tough, we'll act even tougher. We will cripple your economy.' Because let's not forget that the Turkish economy is very much dependent on tourism revenues. The government was hoping to rein in some $20 billion this year, but it looks like they're not going to achieve that target."

Going Low-Tech

Just how much damage the TAK can inflict remains unclear. The extent of their financial resources, their command structure, or even how many members they have, remain a mystery.

"Nobody really knows how many militants the Falcons have. And in fact, the lines between them and the PKK, as I said, are very blurred. So it's perfectly conceivable that PKK militants move to the cities to carry out these operations and then claim responsibility under the name of the Freedom Falcons," she said.

"It's also conceivable that they have sympathizers in the cities whom they draw upon, because in fact these operations aren't terribly sophisticated. I mean, how much technical knowledge do you really need to place a small explosive device in a rubbish bin and then set it off? Not very much," Zaman said.

The Freedom Falcons' low-tech, low-budget strikes appear to go hand-in-hand with a shift in the PKK's own tactics.

The capture of their leader, Ocalan, and the Turkish military's destruction of the PKK's village support network has significantly degraded the group's logistical abilities, forcing it to rely on more clandestine strikes, according to Zaman. It's yet another reason to suspect the Freedom Falcons are just an offshoot of the PKK.

"The PKK itself, too, after calling off the cease-fire, has stopped engaging Turkish security forces directly and instead is relying on remote devices, land mines, rather than as I said, direct conflict -- so very low-risk but very sensational attacks," she said.

No Talks With Terrorists

What then, of Turkish public opinion? Do most people think the government should relent and make concessions to the PKK?

Zaman says, "No." As evidence, she cited public reaction to media reports of secret negotiations about the PKK between Turkish intelligence and Iraqi Kurd leaders acting as brokers.

"In fact, with every new attack, there is less support -- if there was any at all to begin with -- for any kind of deal at all being struck with the PKK," she said.

"And shortly after the media leaked news of these secret negotiations between the Turkish intelligence chiefs and the Iraqi Kurdish leaders, there was an outcry and especially the members of the political opposition here really went after the government in a big way, accusing it of treason," Zaman added. "So yes, there is not much support for any kind of deal and especially after this recent wave of attacks there seems to be very little hope of any such deal being struck."

Especially with national elections coming up next year, there is no chance the government wants to appear soft on domestic terrorism.