Ankara hardens line as Kurdish rebellion grows bloodier: Hugh Pope examines the West's indifference towards a Turkish campaign to crush increasing solidarity among the Kurds

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The Independent Online
IT WAS a vintage comment by President Turgut Ozal, probably made off the cuff but revealing much about Turkey's hardening attitude to stamping out its ethnic Kurdish rebellion.

'Many problems would be solved much more easily,' he told Kurds living in Turkey's embattled south-east, 'if 500,000 people left here and settled in the west. We are ready to embrace you all.' Mr Ozal was tactless, to say the least. At worst, he could be seen to be justifying what Kurds see as a worsening campaign to crush their culture and humble them in their mountain homeland. He later said he was only referring to the way many of Turkey's 12 million Kurds have left the mountains to seek big city riches.

But Kurds were reminded of the Ottoman habit of resettling rebellious Kurds and events in the pro-rebel town Sirnak on 18-20 August. The town was wrecked and 18 people killed, including 14 civilians, when massive army force was used against an apparently brief rebel attack. Most of Sirnak's 25,000 people left.

The usually pro-government Turkish Daily News has bravely but unsuccessfully clamoured for an investigation into claims that the army ran amok. Kurds were left to savour a comment by the Interior Minister, Ismet Sezgin, justifying his refusal to allow journalists to see damage in nearby villages. 'These villages support the PKK (Turkish Workers' Party),' he said. 'Those who go to the hamam (bath-house) will sweat.'

Harder attitudes now extend to perhaps the worst recent development - the murder in the past 15 months of more than 60 Kurdish nationalists, bringing the eight-year death toll of soldiers, rebels and civilians to 4,500.

Turkish tactics bear little comparison to those practised over the border by Iraq's President Saddam Hussein. About 1,000 Kurdish villages in Turkey may have been abandoned for various reasons, while President Saddam blew up more than 4,000 Kurdish villages stone by stone and eliminated up to 200,000 of the 4 million Kurds.

But the domestic violence has stopped Turkey's judicial reform programme dead in its tracks, one of the principal platforms of Western support for Mr Demirel's government when it came to power nine months ago.

In a display of an anti-Kurdish nationalist spirit gaining ground in Turkey, the head of the Appeals Court on Monday celebrated the new judicial year with a speech demanding harsher methods in the fight with terrorism and ruling out concessions to the Kurdish language.

All dialogue has also now been cut with Kurdish radical parliamentarians, once part of Mr Demirel's coalition government but now accused of being little more than an extension of the PKK.

Turkish commentators have puzzled over the unusual silence of Turkey's Western allies over events in the Kurdish south-east. One reason is that Western capitals see more benefits in friendship with Nato-member Turkey, with its dynamic economy, its border with Iraq and its new backyard in Central Asia, than any attempt to challenge it over its Kurdish problem. Another reason is the Marxist PKK itself, which has emerged as the only organisation tough enough to resist decades of Turkish suppression of Kurdish nationalism - eliminating some of its rivals along the way and falling foul of the Kurdish leadership in northern Iraq.

Most Western governments brand it

a terrorist group and feel no sympathy with its Marxist ideology or its backers - Syria, some elements in Iran and, according to Turkey, Saddam Hussein.

'The outside world sees this as a

fight against terrorism,' Mr Demirel was quoted as saying by Milliyet newspaper over the latest offensive against some 10,000 PKK guerrillas on the Iraqi border. 'This is a big advantage for us.'

But even Turkish leaders now admit that the PKK has support among Kurds with its successes and its ambitious goal of a united, independent state for all the 20 million Kurds of the Middle East.

As Turkey steps up its fight with Kurdish rebels, only time will tell how long Western governments will continue to look the other way.