A Mideast War That Won't Go Away
In Turkey's mountainous southeast, Army fights Kurdish separatists
KARVASH RIDGE, TURKEY
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
"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.