War with Kurds makes Turkey think again

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The Independent Online
TURKEY yesterday reversed cuts in the armed forces that it had tentatively begun, citing increased difficulty with Kurdish rebels as the reason.

'There is a vital situation . . . we need at least 110,000 troops in the south-east for the fight,' Tansu Ciller, the Prime Minister, said, adding that the expensive and unpopular move was a 'one-time measure' insisted on by the army.

Retirement and demobilisation has been suspended and national service will go back from 15 months to 18 months for conscripts. One Western specialist judged it would add more than 50,000 men to the armed forces. The 600,000-strong force has for years been the second biggest in Nato. Turkish generals had hoped to cut the force by a third.

Commentators said reasons for the move also included tension with Greece and a rising threat from Russian nationalism, but a senior army officer said 'don't believe everything you read in the newspapers'. Officers said there was no new threat from Greece, despite verbal outbursts from the Pasok government. To the north, Western diplomats say the threat from Russia is no more than that faced during the Cold War.

Turkey has pulled back troops from the border with Bulgaria and now enjoys good relations with Sofia. But it has changed virtually nothing on the borders of the Caucasus, where Turkish newspapers say 50,000 men stand watch. News of the change may well anger Russia.

More than 10,500 people have been killed in the south-east of Turkey in the war between the security forces and rebels of the Marxist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which can claim to field as many as 10,000 guerrillas. But Western diplomats believe that the Turkish move could be a temporary one, linked to elections in March and potentially explosive celebrations of the Kurdish New Year.

Numbers may not be the only problem, however. It is an open secret that troops involved in the fight are struggling in the conditions, lacking vital equipment and even medicine. The paramilitary gendarmerie bears the brunt of the fighting and a gendarmerie report leaked to Hurriyet newspaper yesterday said: 'The outposts are completely on the defensive. They only learn of an attack when the sound of gunfire starts.'