Conflict Flares Up Between Kurds, Turkish Forces

A long-simmering conflict is escalating in southeastern Turkey between government forces and Kurdish rebels known as the PKK. According to a local human-rights organization, the conflict left about 500 people dead last year, including government soldiers and police officers.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

Across Iraq's northern border, a different conflict is escalating again. Kurdish rebels known as the PKK have intensified their attacks, and Turkey has responded in kind. According to a local human rights organization, the conflict killed around 500 people last year. NPR's Ivan Watson begins this report in the predominantly Kurdish town of Batman in southeastern Turkey.

IVAN WATSON: Vashti Ono(ph) was selling produce at his fruit and vegetable stand last week when Kurdish gunmen ambushed a car loaded with policemen at a crossroads some 20 feet from his stall.

VASHTI ONO: (Through Translator) I dove behind crates of vegetables until the shooting stopped. Then I saw the police officers lying on the ground and tried to help get them to a hospital.

WATSON: Several stray bullets struck Ono's produce stand, narrowly missing the 32-year-old Kurd. But the Turkish police officers didn't stand a chance. Four were killed and at least two others critically wounded. Across town, a supporter of the Kurdish rebel movement, the PKK, said the ambush was a justifiable response to Turkish government attacks.

Unidentified Man#1: (Foreign language spoken)

The PKK supporter is a Kurd who served some 10 years in a Turkish prison, where he says he was periodically tortured. He would not allow his name to be broadcast for fear of reprisals from Turkish authorities.

SIEGEL: (Through Translator) In the last year, I have been to the funerals of 10 PKK guerrillas here in Batman. Many people here think the PKK guerrillas are freedom fighters, fighting for Kurdish culture and Kurdish citizens.

WATSON: The conflict between the PKK and the Turkish state erupted in the 1980s and raged throughout southeastern Turkey for 15 years, killing some 30,000 people, most of them Kurds. The violence tapered off for several years after Turkey captured the separatist movement's leader, Abdullah Ojalan, in 1999. As part of its bid to join the European Union, Turkey has since made some concessions to its long-oppressed Kurdish minority. The government lifted a ban on some Kurdish TV and radio broadcasts, and allowed some Kurdish language education at private schools. But that wasn't enough, says Osman Baydemir, the elected mayor of the largely Kurdish-populated southeastern city of Diyarbakir.

OSMAN BAYDEMIR: (Through Translator) Over the course of the last six years, the Kurdish people were disappointed. I'm worried that this conflict will reignite.

WATSON: Baydemir's Kurdish political party has joined the PKK in calling for a general amnesty for all PKK fighters, including the imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ojalan. The state-appointed governor of Diyarbakir, Efkan Ala, says that there will be no negotiations with terrorists.

EFKAN ALA: (Through Translator) The terrorist organization is losing its popular support. That's why it's become so much more active lately.

WATSON: But the Turkish military also has a long history of human rights abuses. Most recently, Turkish intelligence agents were accused of planting a bomb in a Kurd-owned bookstore, which killed one person. A state prosecutor has linked Turkey's second highest-ranking general to that incident. Meanwhile, the country's security forces have been deploying in large numbers throughout the southeast. Armored personnel carriers and trucks loaded with soldiers patrol the hills and roads around the remote town of Dargecit, scene of a battle earlier this month that left seven PKK fighters dead.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD TALKING)

WATSON: When two visiting journalists arrived in Dargecit, a plainclothes Turkish police officer soon appeared, and, through an interpreter, told them to get out of town.

Unidentified Man#2: It's dangerous, dangerous to be in here.

Unidentified Man#3: Why is it dangerous?

Man#2: For all sides it's dangerous.

WATSON: The tension in this small town is palpable. The elected mayor of Dargecit is a Kurdish activist named Suleyman Anik, who says he was tortured by Turkish soldiers after his son ran off to join the PKK 12 years ago. The mayor now wears a pistol on his belt, he says, to protect himself from Turkish Security Forces.

SULEYMAN ANIK: (Foreign Language Spoken)

WATSON: I'm supposed to represent an official Turkish institution, Anik said, and yet the soldiers search my car every time I drive in and out of town.

The resurgent conflict here is not likely to help Turkey in its already troubled negotiations to join the European Union. The EU has urged Turkey to grant more linguistic and cultural freedoms to its largest ethnic minority. The EU has also officially labeled the PKK a terrorist organization and urged Kurdish politicians to distance themselves from the rebel movement. Ivan Watson, NPR News, Diyarbakir in Southeast Turkey.

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