Turkey confronts a resurgent Kurdish threat

 

SEMDINLI, Turkey

This town of 19,000 nestled in an idyllic mountain pass of impossibly green pastures and golden autumn trees is on the front lines of Turkey's rapidly escalating guerrilla war.

In a struggle for autonomy as well as independent language and education rights, the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) has waged a low-grade conflict in Turkey for decades. But in recent months, the group has reemerged as a stronger, better equipped and increasingly organized force that is now in the midst of one of its bloodiest campaigns since the worst days of the conflict in the 1990s.

The rebels, observers say, appear to be taking a cue from the recent Arab uprisings, seeking to inspire a "Kurdish Spring" among segments of a stateless ethnic group numbering roughly 30 million and traditionally living in parts of Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. The campaign is presenting a major security risk for Turkey at a time when this strategically vital NATO member is also pushing for a limited international intervention against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who Turkish officials see as being at least partly responsible for the mounting PKK threat.

As Assad's grip on Syria has loosened during the civil war, a Syrian Kurdish faction allied with the PKK has established itself as a de facto administration in a growing number of northern cities and towns. Some analysts and diplomats suggest that Assad may be tactically ceding lands to Kurdish rebels there, allowing Syria to become a transit point for weapons and fighters targeting Turkey, which has called for his immediate ouster. Others suggest that Assad, struggling to quell a broader uprising, has simply been unable to prevent the group's spread.

Either way, the rising strength of Kurdish rebels in the region is fueling a bloody uptick in Turkey's long-simmering guerrilla war. The death toll in Turkey has climbed to at least 490 in the past 10 and a half months, making this the conflict's deadliest year since at least 1999, according to International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based nongovernmental organization.

Here in Semdinli, near the mountainous border with Iran and Iraq, a massive truck bomb went off Nov. 4 just as a Turkish army tank rolled by. Marking the worst bombing here since 2005, the explosion sent hot shrapnel raining down on revelers leaving a wedding party, killing an 11-year-old boy, wounding 24 others and blowing out windows and storefronts for blocks.

The blast followed a series of assaults in which rebel commandos attempted to seize this town populated largely by ethnic Kurds, attacking an army base and launching rocket-propelled grenades at the regional governor's residence, forcing Turkish troops to stage a daring rescue of the Ankara-appointed governor and his wife.

"Their tactics have suddenly changed," said Sedat Tore, Semdinli's mayor. "They used to come down from the mountains for quick attacks and quick retreats. Now, they are staying and trying to control territory."

The deepening conflict comes as armed Kurdish groups across the region appear to be increasing their level of cooperation. Terrorism experts, for instance, say more Kurdish fighters from Iran — where the pro-Assad government reached a truce with another faction of Kurdish rebels last year — also appear to be pouring into Turkey.

"We think the PKK has become an organization that is being utilized by a number of countries as proxies, to inflict harm on Turkey and show displeasure with Turkey's policies toward its neighbors," said Suat Kiniklioglu, an Ankara-based political analyst and former national legislator from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling party.

In Semdinli, old bullet holes in apartment buildings and city walls stand as testaments of the frequent fighting over the decades. But residents call the recent bout of violence among the worst they've seen in years. "My children are so scared they can no longer sleep at night," said Nucran Tire, 35, who had to pick shards of glass from her 12-year-old son's back following the early-November bomb explosion, which blew out the front windows of the family's apartment. "The violence is getting worse. We must have peace."

Formed in the 1970s as a radical Marxist guerrilla outfit, the PKK has long fought for a list of demands aimed at ending what they call the "assimilation" of Kurdish youths into Turkish society and the suppression of their rights. After a horrific period of war in the 1990s punctuated by suicide bombings and the hijacking of Turkish Airlines Flight 487, the conflict entered a more subdued phase following the arrest of the movement's de facto leader, Abdullah Ocalan, in 1999.

Kurdish rights groups hoped Erdogan's arrival on the political stage in the 2000s signaled a new chance for peace. That optimism among Kurds in Turkey for a settled agreement increased as Ankara fostered heathy ties with the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq. Yet in a country where Turkish nationalism remains strong, the peace process has seemed to take one step forward and two steps back.

In 2009, the government granted what some saw as a breakthrough. In a country where Kurds could once be detained for listening to music in their native language and were called "mountain Turks" to avoid any reference to their differing ethnicity, Turkey legalized Kurdish programming on state television and allowed Kurdish language classes as an elective in secondary schools. But that same year, authorities also arrested scores of local and national Kurdish politicians and alleged PKK sympathizers.

After the latest round of talks broke down last year, the PKK launched a new military offensive in June 2011 that escalated this summer. Turkish authorities are now facing a multi-faceted Kurdish resistance, including a hunger strike by jailed Kurds that started with 65 prisoners in one compound two months ago. It has now spread to hundreds of inmates and Kurdish politicians nationwide, with their list of demands including the improvement of conditions for Ocalan, who is being held in a prison on an island in the Marmara Sea.

The Turkish government this month said it would move to comply with at least one of the strikers' demands — legalization of Kurdish in Turkish courts. But Kurdish leaders say that is not enough.

"We don't want independence, just a separate parliament and rights within Turkey that recognize our different language, our separate identity," said Esat Canan, a national legislator from the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party. "The demands of the Kurds are reasonable. If the government would just sincerely move to help us obtain our rights, the fighting would stop."

In the meantime, the hunger strike and increased PKK activity appear to be heightening tensions in Turkey's southeast. A reporter who recently drove through the heavily Kurdish city of Yuksekova near Semdinli, for instance, witnessed gangs of masked, rock-throwing Kurdish youths burning tires and staging running battles with Turkish security forces.

The PKK and splinter groups loyal to their cause have also redoubled efforts in the area to firebomb schools — seen as "indoctrination centers" — and detain Turkish teachers sent to the region by the government in Ankara.

"It takes us so much time and energy to build these schools out in the mountains, to give these children a chance at an education," said Ibrahim Kalin, a senior adviser to Erdogan. "But this is part of their totalitarian and backward Marxist-Leninist ideology. They think we are still in the 1970s."

On a chilly morning in Semdinli this month, Hamida Kara, 55, sat under a white canvas mourning tent, rocking back and forth in solemn grief. The aunt of the 11-year-old boy killed by the car bomb that struck the town Nov. 4, Kara held the hand of her younger sister — the boy's mother — as they received a grim parade of well wishers.

Yet Kara, like many paying their respects after the boy's funeral, still appears to support many of the goals — if not the tactics — of the PKK. A woman who clings closely to her Kurdish heritage, she was forced with her family to relocate here from their rural village during the anti-PKK sweeps in the 1990s. Ten of her family members have died in the violence. More have been jailed under anti-terrorism laws.

Towns like Semdinli, observers say, remain a fertile recruiting ground for new rebel fighters, with many residents privately expressing sympathies for the PKK despite the recent rebel siege that began here in July.

But conflict-weary residents — particularly the mothers of young children — also say they just want the violence to stop.

"The sweetest boy in the world was taken from us," Kara said, weeping. "We have reached the point where this needs to be settled with pens, not guns."

News
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised
people
Life and Style
tech

Sales of the tablet are set to fall again, say analysts

News
Brian Harvey turned up at Downing Street today demanding to speak to the Prime Minister
news

Met Police confirm that there was a 'minor disturbance'

Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010
films

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

Sport
football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Bloom Time: Mira Sorvino
tvMira Sorvino on leaving movie roles for 'The Intruders'
Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
News
i100
News
First woman: Valentina Tereshkova
peopleNASA guinea pig Kate Greene thinks it might fly
Voices
Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'
voices

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

Life and Style
The charity Sands reports that 11 babies are stillborn everyday in the UK
lifeEleven babies are stillborn every day in the UK, yet no one speaks about this silent tragedy
News
Blackpool is expected to become one of the first places to introduce the Government’s controversial new Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs)
news

Parties threaten resort's image as a family destination

Life and Style
Northern soul mecca the Wigan Casino
fashionGone are the punks, casuals, new romantics, ravers, skaters, crusties. Now all kids look the same
Life and Style
gaming

I Am Bread could actually be a challenging and nuanced title

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Primary Teacher Cornwall

£21500 - £40000 per annum: Randstad Education Plymouth: ***KS1 & KS2 Teachers ...

Year 5 Teacher

£80 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Year 5 Teacher KS2 teaching job...

Software Developer

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Pensions Scheme After 6 Months: Clearwater People So...

Systems Analyst / Business Analyst - Central London

£35000 - £37000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Busines...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album