September 5, 2006

Turkish govt under fire as Kurdish violence mounts


- Turkey's government was in the hot seat Monday after a weekend of bloodshed by Kurdish rebels triggered calls for a tough military response and Kurdish politicians blamed mounting violence on Ankara's failure to find a democratic solution to the 22-year conflict.

Front pages splashed pictures of grieving relatives at the funerals of eight soldiers killed in the southeast over the weekend by separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) militants.

The funerals were marked not only by grief, but also anger at the government, and several ministers attending the ceremonies were booed.

"Send soldiers to Mount Qandil, not Lebanon," headlined the mass-circulation Sabah, quoting the father of a slain soldier referring to an imminent parliamentary vote to send troops to the UN force in Lebanon.

Mount Qandil, in neighboring northern Iraq, has for years been a safe haven for the PKK; Turkish threats of cross-border operations against PKK bases there have so far been rebuffed by the United States.

"Prime Minister (Recep Tayyip) Erdogan, who says we have a large army capable of undertaking any mission, should first think of ensuring the security of his own country," the popular daily Vatan wrote.

The PKK, listed as a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union, has stepped up violence notably this summer after calling off a five-year unilateral ceasefire in June 2004.

The weekend attacks followed bomb blasts in two Mediterranean resorts last week that killed three and wounded about 40, including 10 British tourists.

The PKK took up arms for self-rule in Turkey's mainly Kurdish southeast in 1984, in a conflict that has so far claimed more than 37,000 lives.

The intensity of the violence is now far lower than at its peak in the 1990s, when the army emptied and razed hundreds of villages accused of aiding the rebels, drawing widespread international criticism for human rights abuse.

Eager to boost its democratic credentials as part of its bid to join the European Union, Turkey has passed a series of reforms since 2000 to expand Kurdish cultural freedoms.

"The reforms narrowed the PKK's room for propaganda and its recruitment of fresh militants and prompted it to step up violence to prove that it is not on its deathbed," said Ihsan Bal, an expert on the PKK at the Ankara-based International Strategic Studies Institute.

"The PKK is trying to force the government to recognize it as an interlocutor in the conflict by actually challenging Turkey's democratization and EU process," Bal told AFP.

"Turkey is now at a turning point: it will opt either for pure force, or soft security measures while maintaining its efforts at democratization," he said.

EU and US support in condemning and combatting PKK violence would be crucial, Bal said, but warned that the lack of foreign backing could undermine Turkey's EU drive and "throw the country into the lap of the Middle East, mired in violence."

Kurdish activists say the cultural freedoms granted by Ankara were half-hearted moves to impress the EU and they accuse the state of lacking a comprehensive strategy to resolve the conflict through democratic means.

Orhan Miroglu, a senior member of Turkey's main Kurdish party, the Democratic Society Party, urged Ankara to consider a general amnesty for PKK members to encourage them to lay down their arms.

"There has never been a serious proposal by the government to end the violence," he said. "What we need is permanent social peace... The problem is not just PKK violence over the past several days, but violence on both sides over the past 22 years."

Miroglu also called for the expansion of Kurdish political rights, including broader powers for local Kurdish administrations and the abolition of a 10-percent national electoral treshold for political parties to earn parliamentary representation.

The use of the term "Kurdistan" is vigorously rejected due to its alleged political implications by the Republic of Turkey, which does not recognize the existence of a "Turkish Kurdistan".

Others estimate as many as 40 million Kurds live in Big Kurdistan (Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Iran, Armenia), which covers an area as big as France, about half of all Kurds which estimate to 20 million live in Turkey

The Kurdish flag flown in Iraqi Kurdistan but unofficially flown by Kurds in Armenia. The flag is banned in Iran, Syria, and Turkey where flying it is a criminal offence"