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Turkey: Government Under Growing Pressure To Meet Kurdish Demands

15 August marked the 21st anniversary of the start of Turkey’s Kurdish insurgency. On 15 August 1984, suspected militants from the Marxist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), killed two police officers in twin attacks in the Anatolian villages of Eruh and Semdinli. The killings marked the start of a 15-year armed campaign for Kurdish self-determination. Following a series of military setbacks and the 1999 capture of their leader, Abdullah Ocalan, PKK militants declared a unilateral truce and sought refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan. But citing Ankara’s refusal to suspend hostilities, the group in 2004 called off its cease-fire and reportedly resumed attacks against Turkish targets. Regional experts say that while most Kurds would like the PKK to renounce violence, the responsibility for establishing a lasting peace ultimately falls to Ankara.

Prague, 17 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Turkish security forces accuse PKK rebels of seeking to rekindle the deadly conflict that claimed some 35,000 lives – mostly civilians -- between 1984 and 1999.

In the past few months, clashes between militants and government forces have been reported in southeast Anatolia, where most of Turkey’s 12 million Kurds live.

Violence has also hit non-Kurdish provinces, with recent deadly bombings taking place in some of Turkey’s crowded resort areas.

Ankara unequivocally blames the PKK for this upsurge of violence.

Turkey’s powerful army generals warn that they have the means and ability to crush any resurgence of Kurdish armed irredentism.

Yet they reject the possibility of unrest returning to 1990s levels, claiming that the vast majority of Turkey’s Kurds stand behind the state and are -- in the generals' words -- “tired of terrorism.”

Ankara has long maintained that the PKK does not enjoy support among the Kurds and that separatism, or autonomy, does not appeal to its southeastern populations.

Independent observers say it is the PKK's methods, rather than its political agenda, that raise the most concern among Kurds.

Katrin Michael is an Iraqi Chaldean who fled her country in the 1990s and spent months in a refugee camp in southeast Turkey before emigrating to the United States. Michael, who now works with the Kurdish Human Rights Organization in Washington, told RFE/RL Turkey’s Kurds have mixed feelings about the PKK.

“They have different opinions," Michael said. "Some people support [the PKK], saying that they want to liberate themselves, that they want autonomy such as [the Kurds] have in Iraq. But a lot of Kurds are very much against the actions [undertaken by the PKK] against innocent people. They are against this, they don’t like this.”

David McDowall, a prominent historian of the Kurdish separatist movement, told our correspondent that although Kurds largely disapprove of the PKK's methods, they nonetheless support the group.

“Most Kurds, actually, feel very, very frightened and disturbed by the PKK. Its violence is pretty terrifying," McDowall said. "And the only reason why the Kurds have, certainly during the 1990s, supported the PKK was that the Turkish state forces were able to be equally terrifying to the Kurds. So they then said: ‘Blood is thicker than water and I’d stick with a devil that is a Kurdish devil, rather than with a Turkish devil.’ It is basically for that reason that so many people have given support to the PKK.”
"The only reason why the Kurds have, certainly during the 1990s, supported the PKK was that the Turkish state forces were able to be equally terrifying to the Kurds. So they then said: ‘Blood is thicker than water and I’d stick with a devil that is a Kurdish devil, rather than with a Turkish devil.’ It is basically for that reason that so many people have given support to the PKK.”

Arguing that the Turkish army had mounted some 700 raids against its militants during the cease-fire -- including in northern Iraq -- the PKK last year officially resumed its armed struggle against Ankara's security forces.

The group says it is ready to lay down weapons once again -- as soon as Turkey recognizes the rights of its Kurdish minority.

Pressed by the European Union, which it hopes to join within a few years, Ankara has liberalized its legislation with a view to granting Kurds greater cultural and social rights. But most of these legal changes have yet to be implemented.

Turkey has rejected dialogue with the PKK, which it considers a terrorist group. It has also banned several pro-Kurdish parties for allegedly maintaining links with the rebels.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on 12 August made a landmark visit to eastern Anatolia’s main city of Diyarbakir. During the trip, he pledged to solve the Kurdish problems “with more democracy and civil rights.”

Groups close to the PKK described this statement as “significant” but said they wanted to see how it would translate into action.

David Morgan from the Kurdistan Solidarity Committee, a nongovernmental group that lobbies for Kurdish rights in the British parliament, said he is rather skeptical. Citing similar statements made by Turkish leaders in the past, he said there is no guarantee Erdogan’s pledges will have any practical effect.

“Historically, Turkish leaders have gone to Diyarbakir to make such statements," Morgan said. "When Prime Minister Tansu Ciller made statements similar to that [in the mid-1990s], saying that there should a ‘Basque solution’ to Kurdish problems, it led to a further intensification of military action on the part of the Turkish army. So it’s not clear what will happen. I think the Kurdish people in the area are quite concerned that [Erdogan] made that statement; they're not hopeful in that respect. It could be made to address the European audience.”

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking for Turkey. And not only because of the approaching 3 October deadline for starting EU accession talks.

PKK officials blame the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) for recent bomb attacks in Istanbul and Turkey’s sea resorts. They say the TAK is a dissident group that recognizes Ocalan as its leader, but not the authority of the PKK.

Turkish officials in turn say the TAK is just a cover for the PKK.

But McDowall said it is unclear what link exists between the two organizations. He said he believes the Kurdish separatist movement might have split into different subgroups, much as the Irish Republican Army did in the late 1990s.

“This is kind of symptomatic of these movements that use political violence that, very often, a point comes where the mainstream decides that there is not more to be [achieved from] the political violence and the time to find alternative, diplomatic roots has now come and, therefore, they effectively abandon using violence," McDowall said. "And always, there tends to be a minority within the movement who break away because they are so wedded to the idea of political violence that they find it almost impossible to think in any terms, expect those of some kind of military victory – which tends to be pretty unrealistic.”

Whoever bears responsibility for the recent bomb attacks, regional experts agree that the solution to the Kurdish problem lies first and foremost in Turkey’s hands.

McDowall said that despite its shortcomings and whatever support it may enjoy in Anatolia, the PKK has, “for better or for worse,” succeeded in making Kurds throughout the country aware of their ethnic identity.

He said any further delay by Ankara in recognizing the existence of its Kurdish minority and relieving Anatolia's dire economic condition will inevitably lead to new outbreaks of violence.

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