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Turkish Kurds: some back the state

Though embattled, not all Kurds support the militant Kurdistan Workers Party.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 6, 2007

Sirnak, Turkey

He may be a Turkish Kurd, but Mehmet Gungor says he has every reason to "hate" the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

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Twenty years ago, armed Kurdish separatists visited his uncle's house, asking the extended family to provide food and one or two children as PKK recruits. Citing their poverty in remote southeast Turkey, the family refused.

Mr. Gungor, then barely a teenager, watched through his window as the militants set fire to the place, killing 13 relatives. Then they torched his family's house. "If the security forces had come five minutes later, we would have died," he says.

The result of that event has led him to a rare position among Turkey's long-embattled Kurds: standing firmly alongside the military and state authorities.

"While the terrorists try to gain their Kurdish rights, at the same time they kill their own Kurdish people," says Gungor, who heads the Sirnak branch of the national Association of Veterans and Martyrs and whose stance has spurred him to pack a pistol. "If they want to establish a separate Kurdish [state], why do they choose to kill civilians? That is not the way."

The PKK waged a brutal fight against the state from 1984 through the 1990s that left some 37,000 dead, the majority of them guerrillas. The conflict was marked by PKK killings of teachers, village guards, and other civilians, beside Turkish troops, causing the US and European Union to list the PKK as a "terrorist" group.

That designation continues. Last week the US special envoy for countering the PKK, retired Gen. Joseph Ralston, said: "[The PKK] should be treated as murderers by everyone, including the United States."

Turkey's military responded in the early 1990s with a harsh state of emergency, under which 3,000 villages were evacuated in a scorched-earth policy, hundreds of thousands were displaced, and abuses included killings and torture.

Fighting calmed after the PKK said in 1999 that it had given up its separatist demands and would struggle for Kurdish rights peacefully. But PKK attacks have mounted in recent months, spurring Turkey's military and government to threaten a cross-border operation into Iraq and order recruitment of 50,000 more local village guards.

On Sunday, four masked ex-PKK members, one of them a woman and all of them claiming to have just "escaped," told journalists in Sirnak that the guerrillas were fleeing the northern Iraqi camps. "In the last few days, the rumors of a cross-border operation have triggered fear within the [PKK]," one said. "All the camps have been emptied." The ex-rebels also claimed to have witnessed two US armored vehicles delivering weapons to the PKK in northern Iraq, giving ammunition – apocryphal or not – to some Turkish claims of secret US support for the PKK.

The toll rose Wednesday with reports that two PKK fighters had been killed by Turkish troops while trying to lay a mine in eastern Tunceli Province, and that a pro-government village guard had been killed in nearby Bingol.

Gungor says the 1987 attack on his family caused him to "grow in his hate" against the PKK and to join the village guards. "Like all Sirnak citizens, we were in the middle," says Gungor, whose desk is watched over by a portrait of modern Turkey's secular military founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. His office organized a June 9 anti-PKK rally, which drew some 5,000 people, almost all of them Kurds, to the streets.