Turkish Government Feels Pressure to Hit Kurds

Twenty Turkish troops are dead or missing after fighting Sunday with Kurdish separatists near the border with Iraq. In Turkey, there is growing demand for the government to take action against Kurds in northern Iraq.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

I'm Madeleine Brand.

Coming up, who hates Hillary the most? The Republican presidential candidates get nasty in their latest debate.

CHADWICK: First, tensions between Turkey and Iraq, already strained, are much worse after this bloody weekend. A fight between Turkish troops and Kurdish rebels near the border has complicated everything. The Turkish military says at least a dozen soldiers were killed after these rebels from the Kurdish Workers Party - it's called the PKK - ambushed a Turkish Army patrol yesterday. Eight of the soldiers were taken prisoner. Turkey says it killed 34 rebels in response.

NPR's Ivan Watson is monitoring events from Istanbul. Ivan, what is the latest there?

IVAN WATSON: Well, the PKK recently announced, Alex, the names and hometowns of at least seven of the eight soldiers it claims to have taken hostage. Earlier today, the Turkish military confirmed that eight of its soldiers have gone missing since yesterday's battle on the border. That's in addition to the soldiers that were killed and wounded. This is the largest capture of Turkish soldiers that people can remember here of Turkey's entire 23-year war with the PKK.

CHADWICK: And the timing of this - I mean the Turkish parliament just four days ago passed this resolution saying to the military there, if we need to invade Iraq to protect the integrity of the Turkish nation state, go ahead. You can go into Kurdish territory to get after these rebels if you want. That's something that, well, the United States, for one thing, didn't like.

WATSON: Exactly. This bill was passed in parliament - this measure - overwhelmingly by 507 parliament members, despite opposition from the U.S. government, from the Iraqi government. It was perceived as a way, at least by some analysts here, of applying pressure against the Americans and the Iraqi Kurds who rule northern Iraq to take some action against the PKK, which has operated for years out of mountain bases on the Iraqi side of the border. The PKK, if this was in fact on Sunday a cross-border raid and ambush against Turkish forces just a few miles into Turkish territory, if this was in fact a PKK raid - and there are competing claims about that, Alex - then this was a very provocative act by the PKK, perhaps a call of the Turkish bluff. And it's now left the Turkish government in a very uncomfortable position where the Turkish prime minister will look very weak if he doesn't respond in some way to this very bloody battle yesterday.

CHADWICK: Well, I want to ask you about how people in Istanbul and throughout Turkey are reacting. But first, let me read a quote that I saw today in The New York Times. Turkish leaders have said to the Iraqis, look, arrest some of these militant leaders, give them to us, and you know, this problem is going to go away. And here's a response Jalal Talabani, that's Iraq's president - he is a Kurd - he says we're not going to hand any Kurdish man to Turkey, not even a Kurdish cat. Now, how's that going down?

WATSON: Turks are furious, and many Turkish hardliners were already calling on the Turkish military not just to go after the PKK but to go further, to go slam the Iraqi Kurds, which many Turks feel are a threat; they feel that the Kurds are in alliance on both sides of the border here. So these comments have been broadcast constantly on Turkish news channels. They've been hyping up the reaction among the Turks. So we've seen these street demonstrations erupting almost spontaneously around Turkey starting yesterday, and even today I ran across these high school students who were chanting in Istanbul's central Taksim Square.

(Soundbite of protesters)

WATSON: And of course these students were chanting their support for the Turkish military and condemning the PKK. That's just one example of many around the country. We've had reports of vandals attacking a Kurdish political party in the central Turkish city Bursa, seeing Turkish flags popping up in shop windows, hanging from the back of cars. The Turkish prime minister has even called on Turks to please not lash out at people who are not responsible for this violence between the Turkish military and the PKK in statements made last night.

CHADWICK: Secretary of State Rice has been in touch with Turkish leaders. What do you think is going to happen?

WATSON: Well, according to the Turkish prime minister, Rice told him last night on the phone to please wait a few days before taking action. Today, Talabani, the Iraqi president, announced to expect a PKK ceasefire declaration before the end of the day.

CHADWICK: NPR's Ivan Watson in Istanbul. Ivan, thank you again.

WATSON: You're welcome, Alex.

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Kurdish Rebels Attack Turkish Force at Border

Tensions are high after a bloody day of fighting on the border between Turkey and Iraq.

Turkey's defense minister says 17 Turkish soldiers were killed after Kurdish separatist rebels ambushed a Turkish military convoy, and then clashed with Turkish troops throughout the day.

The battle comes just a few days after Turkey's parliament voted overwhelmingly to authorize cross-border military attacks against Kurdish rebel camps in the mountains of neighboring Iraq.

Turks awoke to grim montages on morning television news shows listing the names of the soldiers killed in what was the bloodiest day of fighting in years between the Turkish military and Kurdish rebels, known as the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK.

On Sunday, flag-waving Turks organized small street demonstrations around the country, as news of Turkish casualties trickled out from the border town of Daglica, where the fighting raged throughout the day.

From northern Iraq, spokesmen for the PKK claimed their fighters captured eight Turkish soldiers during the battle.

Some Turks lashed out, vandalizing the offices of a Kurdish political party in different cities around the country.

Late Sunday night, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan emerged from crisis talks with his top generals and called for calm.

Reporters asked Erdogan whether he would make good on his threat to send troops into northern Iraq.

"The struggle against terrorism should never be based on emotions," he said. "When the conditions are right, we won't hesitate for a moment to make this decision."

Hugh Pope, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, said the Turkish government is under huge domestic pressure to invade.

"Their options are limited. They've painted themselves into something of a corner domestically because they've built up the impression that the PKK is an external problem based in Iraq — and that by trying to eliminate them in Iraq, they can solve the PKK problem in Turkey," Pope said.

The PKK's support among Turkish Kurds has dwindled in recent years. Pope said the Kurdish rebels are fighting to regain their relevance by trying to provoke a cross-border military operation.

"The PKK wants to internationalize the Kurdish problem. They want to pull Turkey into the trap. They want to drag Turkey into the morass of Iraq," Pope said.

Turkey once again has demanded that its NATO ally, the United States, and the Iraqi Kurds who rule northern Iraq take immediate measures against the PKK.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice telephoned Erdogan on Sunday and reportedly asked him to wait a few more days before taking action.

Meanwhile, Iraqi Kurdish leaders condemned the PKK's violent tactics, but they added that they would never hand over fellow Kurds to Ankara.

Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, also issued a warning: If there is an invasion, his people will defend themselves against the Turks.

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