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Turkey: Ankara Says Kurdish Separatists Are Rekindling Insurgency

Turkish security officials say they have been facing a renewed insurgency by Kurdish separatists since the remnants of the Kurdistan Workers Party declared an end to its five-year-old unilateral cease-fire.

Prague, 22 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Reports from southern Turkey suggest that Turkish authorities have launched a crackdown against Kurdish separatists since the remnants of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) declared an end to the unilateral cease-fire it announced five years ago.

Kurdish separatists in the PKK had waged an insurgency for nearly two decades in southeastern Turkey in their failed bid to win autonomy for the Kurdish minority there. The now-defunct PKK declared the cease-fire in 1999 after its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, was captured the previous year and urged his followers to conduct their campaign for autonomy through legitimate political means.
"The PKK based in northern Iraq is about to disintegrate.”

But the PKK's successor group, Kongra-Gel, called off the cease-fire at the start of June, saying Turkish security forces have refused to respect the truce.

Turkish security forces are reported to be increasingly involved in clashes with Kurdish separatist fighters. Ankara claims that about 2,000 Kurdish fighters have crossed into Turkey from hideouts in mountainous northern Iraq in recent weeks.

Seyfi Tashan is director of the Foreign Policy Institute at Bilkent University in Ankara. He notes that the Kurdish separatist movement has been disintegrating since many of its militant members fled into northern Iraq after Ocalan's capture.

Tashan says what now remains of the separatist movement is divided between moderates and splintering militant groups.

"The PKK based in northern Iraq is about to disintegrate,” he says. “Some of their members are joining the peshmerga [force that the PKK had fought against in the past]. A group of the PKK -- its name now is Kongra-Gel -- have decided to renew action, infiltrating eastern Turkey from Iraq."

Tashan says that by rekindling violence in southern Turkey, militant faction leaders hope to maintain unity within the disintegrating separatist movement.

"It would be to keep at least a certain part of the people together because, without fighting a war, keeping a group of [militants together] in a camp in the middle of nowhere in northern Iraq is a difficult feat," Tashan says.

However, international lobbyists for Kurdish rights say it is a misrepresentation to equate Kongra-Gel with militancy and terrorism.

Estella Schmid, coordinator of the London-based Kurdistan Solidarity Committee, told RFE/RL that although Kongra-Gel includes some former militants, the group in recent years has developed a political platform that renounces terrorism.

"Kongra-Gel is a congress. And following the dissolution of the PKK in 1999, this is quite a completely different organization in terms of its strategy and tactics. It is entirely based on the democratization of the Middle East. So they are putting forward a proposal of a federation of the Middle East in which the Kurds are part of the resolution of the problems in the Middle East -- entirely by political and peaceful means," Schmid says.

Schmid concludes that it is Ankara's ban against Kongra-Gel, as well as some 700 attacks conducted by Turkish security forces against Kurds during the last five years, that make a peaceful, political resolution to Kurdish issues so difficult in Turkey.

Rochelle Harris, a spokeswoman for the London-based Kurdish Human Rights Project, says it is hard to find objective opinions about Kurdish issues inside of Turkey.

"The difficulty in finding an objective opinion on the Kurdish situation in Turkey is that the Kurdish side itself has been censored for so many years. For a number of years, it has been illegal to speak as a Kurd in the Kurdish language. However, the European Court of Human Rights is surely one body that could be expected to have an objective opinion. And it has condemned Turkey on a number of occasions for violating the right of freedom of association, of the right to a fair trial, for torture and for other human rights violations," Harris says.

Turkey has been enacting cultural rights for its estimated 12 million-strong Kurdish population as part of efforts to persuade the European Union to open entry talks.

But at the same time, ethnic clashes appear to be on the rise. Private Turkish broadcasters -- including NTV and the Turkish-language division of CNN television -- have reported in the past week that the Turkish military is preparing large-scale operations in southeastern Turkey to hunt down separatist militants.

Other reports confirm that raids already have been launched by Turkish authorities in the southern city of Adana near the Mediterranean coast.

In one raid in Adana last week, six Kurdish men and two Kurdish women were arrested on charges of plotting terrorist attacks. Turkish news reports say evidence seized from the suspects by police included 10 kilograms of plastic explosives along with detonators and documents on bomb making. Earlier this month, four members of the former PKK also were arrested in Adana on suspicion of planning attacks.

More than 37,000 people have been killed in Turkey as a result of separatist violence and the subsequent crackdowns by security forces since Kurdish militants launched their insurgency in the mid-1980s. Most of those killed have been Kurds in the southeast of the country.