Kurdish rebels fight fear with fear: Violence in Turkey looks set to spiral after a chilling threat, writes Hugh Pope in Istanbul

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THE SPIRAL of violence in Turkey's nine-year-old Kurdish rebellion took a dangerous new turn yesterday as guerrillas killed a Turkish general in a gun battle and both sides reported massacres in which dozens, perhaps hundreds, may have died.

The grey stone facade of Turkey's General Staff Headquarters loomed ominously out of the nation's television screens as spokesmen issued vengeful statements after the death of the highest-ranking officer killed in the war so far. General Dogan Gures, the chief of staff, was gaunt and speechless with rage.

The four-month-old government of Tansu Ciller clearly shared a feeling of impotence. After an emergency civilian-military summit the only statement it could make was that 'everyone agreed there was no need for martial law . . . the chief of staff said so himself'.

The government fumbled on with talk of more meetings to discuss solutions, pale stuff beside a chilling announcement by the rebels that they would kill any Kurdish politician who had not resigned from mainstream Turkish parties or come over to their side by Sunday.

'All those who do not obey our party's call will become the targets of our national liberation struggle', the German-based Kurdistan News Agency quoted a rebel spokesman as saying. 'Let us not recognise the right to life of anybody working for bourgeois parties at any level.'

To ram the point home, the news agency said guerrillas from the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) had kidnapped a provincial chief of the Social Democrat Party, the junior partner in Turkey's coalition government. An opposition party mayor was also seized nearby.

Massacres have also taken place. Bodies of dead Kurdish infants were shown in Turkish television footage from a village in the south-east of Turkey. They were killed during a Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) raid on Thursday night aimed at intimidating a government-armed Kurdish militia.

State television said 13 of the 23 dead were women and children. A guerrilla statement said 23 village guards were killed but that 'they had hid behind the women and children . . . the village was wiped off the map'.

Such massacres have become a horrible routine of the war. Less usual was the rebel killing of General Bahtiyar Aydin, commander of the paramilitary gendarmerie in the principal south-eastern province of Diyarbakir.

The Turkish general staff said he was hit in the chest yesterday morning while in the barracks in the town of Lice. Turkish official statements spoke of an all-day rebel attack, adding that 'the terrorists have made a principle of barbarity . . . they will get the end the deserve'.

But it was not clear why the rebels would attack the town, which is usually staunchly pro-PKK. The Kurdistan News Agency gave a different version of events. It said that half an hour after the general was shot. 'Turkish military forces attacked places where people were congregated like mosques and coffee houses, with tanks. Hundreds of people were killed.'

It is hard to know how a declaration of martial law would change of any of this. A 150,000-man military presence is already trying and failing to wipe out an estimated 10,000 guerrillas.

In recent weeks 10 to 40 people have been dying each day in a war that has killed 7,500 people since 1984 and despite Turkish disclaimers the south-east, where about half the 12 million Kurds live, is turning into what feels like a another country. But if the Turkish army and security forces make no secret of their intention to bludgeon nationalist Kurds into submission, the PKK is now fighting fear with fear.

The main pro-Kurdish newspaper cleared its whole front page to justify PKK actions. Ozgur Gundem noted that it was hard to talk of press freedom when death squads had killed 11 of its Kurdish reporters and distributors in the past year, its offices were constantly threatened and nearly one-third of its editions had been banned.

(Photograph omitted)