A Mideast War That Won't Go Away

In Turkey's mountainous southeast, Army fights Kurdish separatists

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

THE Turkish Army's intelligence reports were correct: Deeply hidden in a stony mountain valley in eastern Turkey, separatist Kurdish guerrillas had set up a training and command base.

Turkish troops moved quickly to surround them, but the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) rebels moved faster still to escape. Lieutenant Akrep's unit intercepted them, blocking their way.

The subsequent battle early this week - one of the bloodiest single-day clashes for Turkey in more than a decade of fighting - left at least 27 soldiers and 99 guerrillas dead. It also ushered in the Army's annual spring offensive and a now-ritual season of mourning that, this year, many hope will be the last.

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"These soldiers shed their blood to protect the integrity of their country," Akrep says. He wears a simple faded green uniform, with an insignia of twisted snakes pinned to his collar, indicating he is a medical doctor. In Turkey, he is obligated to serve in the Army.

"They were my friends," he says, his voice cracking. "But I'm glad that they have reached the high rank of martyrdom."

Turkey's massive military effort during the past four years has brought some success against the PKK, an organization that the US State Department describes as waging an "increasingly violent terrorist insurgency."

Military analysts and diplomats agree that the PKK - a Marxist group that wants a separate Kurdish state in southeast Turkey - is now weak inside the country. But they also stress that the harsh methods used by Turkey's security forces to make "safe" the predominantly Kurdish areas in the east, such as forced evacuation of villages, some burnings, and civilian deaths, have done little to win hearts and minds of civilians here.

Rebels or just residents?

In southeast Turkey, which has been under a constant state of emergency since 1987, the line between minority Kurdish civilians and separatists is lethally blurred.

Turkish units have forcibly depopulated more than 3,000 villages and hamlets, apparently following the Maoist maxim of removing the sea so that the fish - the PKK in this instance - have nowhere to swim. The result, human rights monitors say, is that the majority of more than 1 million people displaced from the region have left because of Army actions.

Authorities insist that they evacuate villagers to protect them from the PKK, and that the Geneva Conventions oblige them to move people away from such a threat. According to the State Department human rights report on Turkey, such incidents were indeed down last year.

The PKK also burn villages that don't provide enough "tax" to its cause, or that follow the government's plan of arming and creating "village guards" of young men to protect their homes. The PKK has also targeted schools and killed teachers.

PKK chief mimics Hamas

The PKK announced a unilateral cease-fire in December, which Turkish authorities ignore and say is a ruse to regroup. But there are few signs of peace. The PKK is likely to seek revenge for the government's Operation Hawk; and guerrilla leader Abdullah Ocalan, who is based in Syria, last month threatened a campaign of Hamas-style suicide attacks.

Blaming Turkey for waging a "war of genocide and annihilation" against Kurds, Mr. Ocalan told a German newspaper: "Until now, my guerrillas knew not how to die. Now they will learn. Every Kurd will become a living bomb."

More than 18,700 people have lost their lives since the insurgency began in 1984. Kurds make up one-fifth of the population of 60 million but - in line with the ideals of a unitary state laid down by Turkey's founder, Kemal Ataturk - they are not recognized as a minority.

The continuing violence has divided opinion in Turkey, diplomats and officials say. Some hard-liners in the Army insist upon a military solution, though the real issue for them may be to justify an armed force that swallows 12 percent of the nation's budget - the largest among NATO countries.

Senior politicians and officials, however, including Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz, are beginning to argue that the only lasting solution may be to recognize and include moderate Kurds. Some improvements are already being made, though the problem is far from resolved.

"The people are caught between two fires: the PKK terrorists and escalating security measures, so there is a discontent," says Bulent Ecevit, the leader of the Democratic Left Party, which is part of Turkey's coalition government.

"I know the Army is not happy with the task given to it, because they were not formed to deal with terror groups," he says. "They are strong as an elephant, but can't effectively deal with this mosquito."

Though officials say they have "broken the back" of the PKK and want to lift the state of emergency, diplomats confirm that Syria and Iran have increased their support for the guerrillas. The PKK also maintains close ties with Kurds in northern Iraq, who are protected by the US-led Operation Provide Comfort there.

The clashes this week are the fiercest in a year, and indicate that the PKK is far from extinct. Some 10,000 soldiers have sealed off a dispersing band of 300 guerrillas in a rough mountainous rectangle that measures 20 by 35 miles.

The Army says it is using sophisticated surveillance equipment to pinpoint walkie-talkie and radio communications, then launch targeted airstrikes with jet fighters and helicopters.

The effect on the PKK will be "very considerable," says Lt. Gen. Hilmi zkok, commander for the region. "It is the beginning of the summertime operations. It will disrupt their future and will not finish until all the terrorists are gone."

After the battle last week, the guerrillas were said to have been pursued by helicopters, probably with American-supplied Cobra attack helicopters that stand armed and in a row at the Diyarbakir airport. Questions about Turkey's use of Cobras against civilians caused US congressmen to block the sale of 10 more earlier this year.

US registers view

Wendy Sherman, assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs, recently spelled out US policy toward Turkey, making clear that human rights was high on the agenda, but that the PKK regularly attacks civilians and Western interests. "The Turkish government has a right to defend itself militarily from this terrorist threat," she said.

In the treacherous mountains of the east, where the abrupt folds of earth hide an abandoned wasteland, the clustered fields of destroyed hamlets lie fallow. Normal life is as distant as the nearest big town.

High up on the Karvash ridge, 60 miles northeast of Diyarbakir, troops wearing white camouflage are digging their positions into a snow-capped spine that emerges from the surrounding valleys like a pristine cloud.

Transport helicopters drop troops, crates of tinned food, and fresh apples, and bring loads of old scrap wood to feed small warming fires. The rotor wash blows away loose gear and plastic tarps.

Poised in the midst of such dramatic scenery, the mortar positions control everything within sight, including the valley where the Army took such heavy casualties.

Will the guerrillas ever be finally ousted from here?

"Never," answers one Turkish soldier, his sunburnt face dark against a white hood. "The terrorists are always going to be in the next valley."

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