Kurdish Rebels Stir Up Iraq-Turkey Trouble

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The U.S. has vowed to crack down on Kurdish rebels in Iraq who have been fighting a 20-year guerrilla war against neighboring Turkey. In recent months, the PKK has intensified its attacks against Turkish security forces and tourist resorts.


This is MORNING EDITION. I'm Deborah Amos, sitting in for Renee Montagne on assignment in Afghanistan.


And I'm Steve Inskeep, good morning.

An armed group in Iraq announced the unilateral cease-fire last week. It's not a group that directs attacks the American soldiers. The group is the PKK -Kurdish separatists from Turkey.

They've been fighting a 20-year war against the Turkish state from camps inside northern Iraq. They announced their cease-fire after the United States promised to crack down.

Here's NPR's Ivan Watson.

IVAN WATSON: Every week, reports emerge from the predominantly Kurdish southeast of Turkey of Turkish soldiers and police officers killed and maimed by deadly roadside bombs, of sabotage attacks derailing trains and damaging pipelines, and of alleged PKK militants captured and killed by Turkish security forces.

Last August, a PKK-linked group further escalated the conflict by targeting foreign tourists in a series of bombings in several Mediterranean resorts. At least six people were killed and dozens wounded. Turkey says there have been more than 500 casualties this year from PKK-related violence.

Mr. FARUK LOGOGLU (Former Turkish Ambassador to Washington): In the last couple of years, the PKK has been able to intensify its terrorist attacks in Turkey because of its presence in northern Iraq.

WATSON: Until recently, Faruk Logoglu was Turkey's ambassador to Washington. He says Turkish public opinion has increasingly blamed the U.S. for the PKK violence because Washington has failed to confront some 5,000 PKK militants who operate across the border in the mountains of northern Iraq.

Mr. LOGOGLU: That is the perception, a big justification in Turkey that the U.S. has failed to take action against the PKK in northern Iraq - action which it could have taken.

WATSON: Last spring, Turkey began beefing up its troop presence along the border, prompting fears that Ankara might order a ground invasion. Lale Sariibrahimoglu, the Turkey correspondent for Jane's Defence Weekly, says this was a warning to Washington.

Ms. LALE SARIIBRAHIMOGLU (Correspondent, Jane's Defence Weekly): It was more to do of a message to the Americans, that do something.

WATSON: The Bush administration appears to have gotten the message from its NATO ally.

General JOSEPH RALSTON (Air Force, Retired; Special U.S. Envoy to Turkey): The PKK is more of a problem for Turkey than al-Qaida is for the United States.

WATSON: Retired General Joseph Ralston was recently appointed special envoy charged with finding new ways of helping Turkey eliminate the PKK.

Gen. RALSTON: We have said all options are on the table. And by that, they clearly means a military option is an option that we will look at.

WATSON: But Turkish and foreign analysts here say that military action will not provide a long-term solution to the problem. In the predominantly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir in southeastern Turkey, it's clear policy-makers have a long way to go to bridge the decades of mistrust between the Turkish states and the country's long persecuted ethnic Kurdish minority.

(Soundbite of car engines, horn)

WATSON: On September 12, a bomb exploded on the edge of a Kurdish neighborhood here where many PKK supporters lived. Among the ten civilians killed were seven children. Turkish officials suggested this was a PKK bomb that exploded prematurely.

But ask the locals and they say no way.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

WATSON: The PKK are freedom fighters says a 17-year-old Kurd here named Jihan(ph). Why would they attack their own supporters? Muhlis Altun is a local leader from the most powerful Kurdish political party in Turkey. He openly accuses pro-government forces of carrying out the attack.

Mr. MUHLIS ALTUN (Leader, Kurdish Political Party): (Through translator) Some retired people in the army and a police officer, who is actually getting an earning profit from this war, from in here. These are - these people are creating this side bomb attack in here.

WATSON: Turkish and Kurdish critics claimed Altun's party is little more than the political wing of the PKK. While Turkish security forces battle Kurdish fighters in the countryside, judges and prosecutors regularly confront elected Kurdish officials in the courts.

Last week, 56 Kurdish mayors went on trial here, accused of aiding and abetting the PKK. When the mayors and their small army of defense attorneys arrived at the courthouse, they were greeted by a crowd of applauding supporters.

(Soundbite of applause)

WATSON: The indictment revolved around an open letter signed by the mayors which urged the government of Denmark not to give in to Turkish pressure to close Roj TV. Ankara claims this Kurdish language TV channel broadcasting from Denmark is a mouthpiece for the PKK. Defense attorney Sezgin Tarrikulu says the charges amount to political persecution.

Mr. SEZGIN TARRIKULU (Attorney): (Through translator) This is both a Kurdish cultural rights issue and a freedom of expression and thought issue. The prosecutor is trying to convict these 56 elected mayors and force them from office.

WATSON: Last week, the PKK announced a truce at the urging of its imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan. The response from the Turkish government was not encouraging. Turkey repeated its refusal to negotiate with what it calls terrorists, and added that the only option for the PKK militants is to surrender and face trial.

Ivan Watson, NPR News, Istanbul.

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