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Turkey makes headway in Kurdish conflict but no end in sight

March 8, 1997

DIYARBAKIR, Turkey (AP) _ Children play tag in front of apartment buildings scarred by machine-gun fire. Along streets where bloody clashes used to take place, youths in blue jeans now crowd the cafes and shoppers roam open-air markets.

Diyarbakir even has a dance club, which opened in recent months as a more peaceful climate has replaced one of violent confrontation between militant Kurds and Turkish troops.

After 12 years of fierce fighting that has cost 23,000 lives, Turkey has pushed its war with rebel Kurds out of the cities and mainly to the mountains.

In the rugged terrain of the southeast, troops are engaged in daily search operations, sometimes calling in air strikes on rebel hideouts.

The fighting has sent people fleeing from the countryside into the cities _ Diyarbakir’s population has soared by several hundred thousand, to about a million _ where there is now some respite from the war.

``We feel so much safer now,″ said Yilmaz Kocak, a university student in Diyarbakir. ``We used to fear going out after 8 p.m. Now we stay out until midnight.″

Turkey’s campaign has brought charges of harsh repression and human rights violations, which have soured the country’s relations with many of its European allies.

About 25 residents of Tekevler village, 190 miles northeast of Diyarbakir, claimed last month that the military used them as human mine detectors.

``We were taken to a field and told to spread out and walk,″ said one of the villagers, Firat Kilic. The soldiers told the villagers that the mines were laid by the PKK, the Kurdish guerrilla force, he said. Kilic said none of the mines exploded.

It was impossible to verify the charge, but the allegations have led to a parliamentary investigation, with a report due in the coming weeks.

Evidently, the war has dropped on Turkey’s agenda, below what the military sees as a challenge posed by an Islamic resurgence marked by Turkey’s first Islamic-led government.

``Radical Islamic movements pose a bigger threat today than the PKK,″ said Navy chief Adm. Guven Erkaya. The army has been particularly vocal and visible recently, even sending tanks into a village that is a hotbed of radical Islam.

The autonomy-seeking PKK also has changed strategy.

Labeled as a terrorist organization by many Western capitals, including Washington, the PKK has gradually decreased its attacks aimed at Kurdish civil servants and halted bombing attacks in cities. It still attacks army targets.

``The PKK is trying to desert its terrorist image, aiming for the image of a representative of a people’s legitimate struggle,″ said Celal Baslangic, a columnist at the daily Radikal, who has followed the region closely. ``It’s trying to gain legitimacy and political standing in the world.″

From his hideout in Syria, PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan has been sending letters to Western leaders, including President Clinton, asking for mediation between his group and the Turkish government. Turkish leaders, however, have vehemently refused to sit down with ``terrorists.″

The PKK has an estimated 10,000 fighters in the mountains here and in northern Iraq, where Baghdad’s authority has been replaced by a de facto Kurdish state since the Gulf War.

To cut off the guerrillas’ lifeline, the army has evacuated more than 2,500 villages in the past four years. About 2 1/2 million Kurds left their fields, animals and homes to live in cramped quarters in the ghettos of cities like Diyarbakir.

The 12-year-old conflict has had one significant result: the rise of ethnic awareness among Kurds.

``Before the war, many people in the region were not even aware they were Kurds,″ said Sedat Yurtdas, who himself has served time in prison for speaking on behalf of Kurdish rights. ``The war has led to an explosion of consciousness.″

People here say what they most want are cultural freedoms, such as broadcasting and education in Kurdish, and the freedom to assert ethnic identity, like being able to use Kurdish names.

Several political leaders have pledged to provide such rights, but failed to keep their promise once they came to power.