Victory over the Kurds turns sour for Turkey

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The Independent Online
THEIR LEADER waits on a prison island while Turkey decides whether to carry out his death sentence. The guerrillas, driven out of the towns where they once held sway, shelter from endless attacks on their mountain bases and now the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) has announced it will lay down its arms and end 15 years of violence that once threatened to tear Turkey apart.

It should have been Turkey's greatest triumph. But then its most powerful ally turned against it. A senior US official has told Ankara that now, with the PKK all but defeated, it must recognise the rights of Turkey's Kurdish minority.

At the same time the US administration called on the PKK to match its words with deeds and honour its pledge to end the violence and withdraw its guerrillas from Turkey by 1 September. The rebel ceasefire came after a call from the jailed PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, to end the violence "for the sake of peace". But the PKK has denied that this is a surrender, and called on the Turkish government to "adopt a solution-seeking approach".

At the same time Harold Koh, assistant US secretary of state, called on Ankara to address the political, economic and human rights problems of Turkey's Kurdish-dominated south-east. Kurds "want to remain Turkish citizens, while enjoying the basic human rights guaranteed to all people under international law", Mr Koh said at the end of a fact-finding mission here.

Mr Koh urged Ankara to lift restrictions on the use of the Kurdish language, and allow the Kurds freedom to organise political parties. Kurdish is banned on television and in schools, and a string of Kurdish political parties have been closed by the courts.

Mr Koh's comments provoked outrage, with several officials reportedly refusing to speak to him. Turkey had already made an official protest when Mr Koh merely inquired as to whether granting cultural rights could improve the situation. One Turkish minister dismissed Mr Koh's advice, remarking "the subjects were new to him".

But Turkey can ill afford to ignore US opinion. It is American backing which has allowed Turkey to sustain its hardline approach to the PKK in the face of European opposition, and the CIA is widely suspected of complicity in the dramatic capture of Ocalan in Kenya. Much will now depend on the PKK's ability to deliver on its word.

Turkish commentators point to splits in the PKK. The party's political wing, which is based in Europe, is believed to support Ocalan's calls for a peaceful solution. But hardline field commanders are said to be determined to fight on.

It is unclear where guerrillas withdrawing from Turkey can go. The PKK has a number of established bases in the mountains of northern Iraq, but the Turkish military is massed on the border and has shown no inclination to follow the rebels' lead and lay down its arms. Ankara has repeatedly sent forces into northern Iraq to hunt down the guerrillas, and the PKK said yesterday that withdrawing rebels reserved the right to defend themselves.

There has been increasing tension recently over Turkish claims that the PKK has bases in Iran, and Tehran has accused Turkey of carrying out an air raid over Iranian soil.

As for any hopes that Turkey may heed Mr Koh's advice and relent over Kurdish rights, there is a long way to go. A Turk echoing Mr Koh could end up in prison, and the Turkish parliament this week refused to recognise Kurdish, even as a foreign language.