Dozens killed in Turkey's new offensive

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The Independent Online


Hopes of an early change in Turkey's Kurdish policy dimmed yesterday as the military revealed the extent of its annual spring offensive, launched five days ago. It has already claimed the lives of more than 130 combatants.

Backed by a new array of US Black Hawk and Cobra helicopters and an undiminished belief that force is the only way to solve the Kurdish problem, the military has once again sent thousands of troops up the steep valleys of south- east Turkey to search for and destroy any concentrations of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

Years of unrelenting Turkish military pressure have driven the PKK far back into the mountains, but somehow the PKK never meets the final end that the armed forces are once again predicting. The army said its assaults found at least one well-defended PKK mountain base fitted out with its own bakery, electricity-generating system, school and 30-person hostels.

The main thrust of the offensive was north-east of Diyarbakir in pursuit of some 200 rebels, who the Turkish military said had recently crossed into Turkey after training. The PKK's main base is in Syria, but such training is usually undertaken in Iraq or Lebanon.

The new Turkish government of Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz also ordered planes to attack targets over the border in northern Iraq, where the PKK has successfully infiltrated Iraqi Kurd territory and established fortified bases.

"The message of the offensive is not just for the PKK ... It is for Iran and Syria as well," Guneri Civaoglu, a commentator at Milliyet newspaper said. "Turkey wants to show its strength."

Turkey has faced growing antagonism recently from both Iran and the Arab world over a range of issues, from sharing the waters of the Euphrates to a joint military training agreement that Turkey signed with Israel in February.

Since the offensive started on Saturday, Turkey has conceded that at least 30 Turkish soldiers have been killed. The government says nearly 100 PKK rebels have also died, but there was no independent confirmation. The fighting looks certain to put an end to the unilateral ceasefire announced by the PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, in December, a ceasefire that Turkey officially rejected but which did appear sharply to reduce clashes and casualties.

Television images of troops scouring hillsides and shelling the snow- capped mountains may also put paid to hopes that the new government can somehow come up with a Kurdish policy that does not begin and end with military campaigns.

Barely three weeks ago, Mr Yilmaz was telling reporters: "We must break down the mountains of our minds ... [the Kurdish problem] cannot be solved by military means alone."

He has promised to lift the state of emergency in the South-east and to review an irregular system of 60,000 state-paid Kurdish "village guards". But his alternative proposals do little for civil rights and may turn the guards into a regular militia.

Newly released figures show that 19,000 people have been killed since the PKK launched its struggle in 1984 in the name of the Kurds, who number 15-20 per cent of Turkey's 65 million people.

Until the end of 1995, 3,000 members of the security forces had been killed and a claimed 11,000 "terrorists". The rest were civilians. The PKK talks of a goal of federal and cultural rights, but few Turks believe that it has dropped its original goal of creating an independent Marxist state.

Support for the PKK appears to be decreasing inside Turkey. A Kurdish nationalist party endorsed by pro-PKK media won only 4 per cent of the vote in the December elections, and a heavily-controlled semblance of normality has been imposed on most towns in the Kurdish South-east.

But the PKK problem is unlikely to go away, however hard Turkey clamps down. It has an extremely effective financial base among the half-million-strong Kurdish diaspora in Europe and is aided by covert support from Syria and other Turkish rivals.