Turkish State, Kurdish Separatists at Odds The long-simmering guerilla conflict between the Turkish state and Kurdish separatists, known as the PKK, has escalated in recent weeks. The rising tensions have led to a massive troop build-up in southeastern Turkey, and to threats that the Turkish military may launch cross-border attacks to root out PKK rebels taking shelter in neighboring northern Iraq.
NPR logo Turkish State, Kurdish Separatists at Odds

Turkish State, Kurdish Separatists at Odds

The long-simmering guerilla conflict between the Turkish state and Kurdish separatists, known as the PKK, has escalated in recent weeks.

The rising tensions have led to a massive troop buildup in southeastern Turkey, and to threats that the Turkish military may launch cross-border attacks to root out PKK rebels taking shelter in neighboring northern Iraq.

In early June, the Turkish military declared much of southeastern Turkey, a "temporary security zone." This predominantly Kurdish region is where 15 Turkish soldiers were killed in clashes during an eight-day period in June.

The Turkish military has shipped in trainloads of tanks, and tens of thousands of additional soldiers to the southeast. But local Kurdish politicians claim these measures are aimed at hurting their political campaigns in the run-up to general elections next month.

"This is martial law," said Orhan Dogan, a Kurdish politician in Diyarbakir who served 10 years in prison after being convicted of having links to the PKK. Recently, Turkey's electoral commission barred him from running for parliament.

"The military won't need any excuse to cancel meetings, political campaigns or even [stop] travel from one town to the next," Dogan said.

The Kurds in Southeastern Turkey

The Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Turkey. But for decades, the ruling Turkish establishment refused to even acknowledge the existence of Kurds, calling them, instead, "mountain Turks." Only in recent years, did the Turkish government finally allow some restricted Kurdish-language education and broadcasting on state television and radio.

In 1984, a Turkish Kurd named Abdullah Ocalan founded the Kurdish Workers Party or PKK, a guerilla movement that fought to carve out a homeland for the Kurds.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the predominantly Kurdish region of southeastern Turkey became the bloody battleground between PKK rebels and the Turkish military.

Some 30,000 people died in the conflict, most of them ethnic Kurds. Millions of Kurds were displaced by the fighting, and many migrated to western Turkish cities.

After the capture and imprisonment of Ocalan in 1999, the PKK declared a unilateral cease-fire. For several years, the fighting abated. But many ethnic Kurds complained that the Turkish state was moving too slowly to recognize Kurdish linguistic and cultural freedoms.

Since Ocalan's capture, the PKK has given up its struggle for an independent Kurdish homeland. But the rebels have not given up their guns. Shadowy Kurdish groups have claimed responsibility for a series of deadly bombs in Turkish resort towns on the Mediterranean Sea. And the guerilla fighters in southeastern Turkey continue to clash with Turkish security forces every week. With every military funeral, pressure builds on the Turkish government to take harsher actions against the PKK.

The Kurds in Northern Iraq (Iraqi Kurdistan)

Last April, Turkey's top military commander, Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, gave a televised speech, demanding government permission to pursue PKK rebels across the border into neighboring Iraq. Thousands of PKK fighters are based in camps in remote mountains on the Iraqi side of the border.

For years, Turkey has pressured the U.S. military and the Iraqi Kurds who rule semi-autonomous northern Iraq, to destroy these mountain bases. But American forces have been bogged down fighting the bloody Arab insurgency in central Iraq. And the Iraqi Kurds have appeared unwilling to side with the Turks against their fellow Kurds.

The Turkish military already has several thousand soldiers deployed in more than a dozen forts and observation posts along a security cordon some 10 miles into Iraqi Kurdish territory, as part of a negotiated agreement dating back to the late 1990s.

Since early June, Turkish artillery has bombarded the mountains around the Iraqi Kurdish border village of Kani Masi. The shelling, often conducted at night, has terrified but, so far, not harmed residents.

"I don't know why they are bombing us," said Nabir Adi Shahroor, one of scores of Iraqi Christians who fled to Kani Masi to escape the violence in Baghdad. "I'm very, very afraid. I don't want Kurdistan to become like Baghdad."

On June 9, the Iraqi government lodged a formal protest with the Turkish Embassy in Baghdad, calling for an end to the artillery strikes. Washington also has urged Turkey not to intervene in Iraqi Kurdistan, warning that it would destabilize the safest region in Iraq.

Political Tensions in Turkey

Many analysts and politicians in the region say the tensions on the Turkish border with Iraq are related to the political crisis in Ankara, which erupted after Turkish presidential elections were canceled last month.

"I think this game they are playing relates in the first place to the internal struggle," said Fouad Hussein, a spokesman for the regional administration in Iraqi Kurdistan. "One side or the other wants to expand the crisis [across] the border."

Presidential elections were canceled after secularist opposition parties boycotted the vote to protest the likely victory of a moderate Islamist candidate from the party of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Turkey's military issued a statement during the disputed election, warning that Islamic fundamentalism posed a threat to Turkey's strict secular system of government.

Erdogan called for snap general elections to be held in July. His party is now mobilizing for the vote. But the Turkish military has become increasingly vocal about the political and security situation in the country. After a bombing in Ankara last month, Gen. Buyukanit told the public that they could expect similar bombs in other major Turkish cities at any given moment.

On Tuesday, Erdogan challenged the Turkish military's position on the PKK, when he questioned why officials were shifting the focus to Northern Iraq.

"There are 500 terrorists in northern Iraq. There are 5,000 terrorists in mountains in Turkey," Erdogan told journalists. "Has the fight with the 5,000 terrorists inside Turkey ended for us to think about an operation in northern Iraq?"

Later in the day, after a special security meeting with top Turkish army generals, Erdogan and the military made a joint announcement calling for unity against terrorism, adding that "the fight against terrorism has the highest priority for the country."