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Turkey Cracking Down on Militants

January 26, 2000

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) _ For almost a decade, Islamic militants terrorized Kurds in southeastern Turkey, executing their enemies with a single shot to the head or a swing of a long blade called the ``sword of Islam.″

Turkish police are now cracking down on the group, arresting militants and uncovering dungeons and torture cells. The campaign has raised the difficult question of whether the state turned a blind eye or even helped create a group that went unpunished as it killed thousands of people, including hundreds of anti-government Kurdish rebels.

Last week, authorities discovered dozens of savagely tortured bodies, including that of one woman, Konca Kuris, beneath the group’s hide-outs.

Outraged commentators and even some politicians contend the state’s crackdown has come only because the group, Hezbollah, is no longer useful now that the main Kurdish militant group, Abdullah Ocalan’s Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, has largely been defeated.

``Hezbollah has completed its mission,″ said Faik Bulut, an expert on Islamic terrorist groups. ``It has been squeezed and squeezed like a lemon.″

Hezbollah, which is not linked to the Lebanon-based guerrilla group of the same name, was formed in the impoverished southern city of Diyarbakir in the early 1980s, when the PKK was becoming powerful in the surrounding countryside.

The militants, who distinguished themselves by wearing shirts over their pants to hide their long knives, were staunchly anti-communist and killed hundreds of PKK members.

The group was at its height in the early 1990s, at the same time that the PKK controlled most of the countryside.

Turkey’s military has denied any links with Hezbollah, but the denial has not silenced speculation that the organization, which never attacked soldiers or police, was supported by local politicians, police and paramilitary forces.

``It is not possible for an organization to do things like Hezbollah without collaborating with traitors within the state and receiving their support,″ said Mesut Yilmaz, leader of the Motherland Party, which is part of the governing coalition.

Eyup Asik, a former state minister, said that in 1993 he informed then-Interior Minister Ismet Sezgin that Hezbollah was killing people in the southeastern town of Batman. He said the government never took action.

It is not the first time the state has been accused of using radical groups to eliminate its enemies.

A 1997 government report said that the state used death squads made up of ultra-nationalists to kill Kurdish rebels, journalists and Armenian militants.

The crackdown on Hezbollah began earlier this month, when police attacked the group’s safe house in Istanbul, killing Huseyin Velioglu, the leader of the organization’s most militant wing.

Following the shootout, the government arrested hundreds of militants who led police to uncover 33 corpses buried in basements and gardens throughout the country. Most of the dead had their arms and legs tied behind their backs.

All the victims were naked and some bore signs of torture, such as missing ribs and broken bones.

Many of the victims were Kurdish businessmen who refused to pay zakat, an Islamic tax, to the group. Others were not Kurds, including Kuris, an Islamic women’s rights activist who apparently first backed Hezbollah but angered its members when she demanded that women pray alongside men.

Police discovered a Hezbollah videotape in which Kuris was seen being interrogated and tortured for 35 days, newspaper reports said.

The group tortured some people by dripping burning nylon on their naked bodies during interrogations, which were videotaped, according to Mehmet Arica, a former Hezbollah member turned police informant. Arica said the leadership watched the videotapes to review the sessions and decide on the victims’ fates.

Militants injected people with tranquilizers and moved them from city to city in refrigerators or couches, the daily Sabah newspaper reported.

According to military intelligence reports, Hezbollah killed 500 Kurdish rebels and is blamed for another 5,000 mysterious killings in the region.

Turkish officials say the group is backed by Iran, a claim that Tehran denies.

Ilnur Cevik, editor in chief of the Turkish Daily News, was pessimistic that the crackdown would lead to significant change.

``All that will happen will be the elimination of some militants while the state officials, who fed them and directed them, will remain unknown and we will face another cover up,″ Cevik wrote in an editorial.

But some others said they hoped for change.

``This is the day for settling accounts,″ Mehmet Ali Birand wrote in the same newspaper. ``The state is cleaning out the dirt within.″