Kurdish fighters defy the world from mountain fortress as bombing begins

Turkey used its helicopters and artillery to attack Kurdish guerrillas inside northern Iraq yesterday as the Turkish army massed just north of the border. The helicopter gunships penetrated three miles into Iraqi territory and warplanes targeted mountain paths used by rebels entering Turkey.

Guerrilla commanders of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) were defiant in the face of an impending invasion. In an interview high in the Qandil mountains, Bozan Tekin, a PKK leader, said: "Even Alexander the Great couldn't bring this region under his rule." The PKK has its headquarters in the Qandil mountains, one of the world's great natural fortresses in the east of Iraqi Kurdistan, stretching south from the south-east tip of Turkey along the Iranian border. If Turkey, or anybody else, is to try to drive the PKK out of northern Iraq they would have to capture this bastion and it is unlikely they will succeed.

Despite threats of action by the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, the PKK leaders give no sense of feeling that their enemies were closing in.

For a guerrilla movement awaiting assault, the PKK's leaders are surprisingly easy to find. We drove east from Arbil for two-and-a-half hours and hired a four-wheel drive car in the village of Sangassar. Iraqi police wearing camouflage uniform were at work building a new outpost out of cement blocks beside the road leading into the mountains but only took our names.

In fact the four-wheel drive was hardly necessary because there is a military road constructed by Saddam Hussein's army in the 1980s which zig-zags along the side of a steep valley until it reaches the first PKK checkpoint. The PKK soldiers with Kalashnikovs and two grenades pinned to the front of their uniform were relaxed and efficient. In case anybody should have any doubt about who was in control there was an enormous picture of the imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan picked out in yellow, black, white and red painted stones on a hill half a mile away and visible over a wide area.

There were no sign that threats from Mr Maliki in Baghdad or from the Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani, were having an effect. The PKK soldiers at a small guest house had not been expecting us but promptly got in touch with their local headquarters.

For all its nonchalance the PKK is facing a formidable array of enemies. The Iraqi government in Baghdad has no direct influence over the Kurdistan Regional Government, led by President Massoud Barzani whose administration is made up of his own Kurdistan Democratic Party and President Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. This is the only force capable of trying to eject the 3,000 PKK fighters.

So far the KRG shows no sign of doing so. One reason is that, paradoxically, the Turkish government will not talk to the KRG although it is the only Iraqi institution that might help it – Ankara is fearful of the growing strength of the KRG as a quasi-independent state on its borders.

So far the PKK is benefiting substantially from the crisis which started this summer when it began to make more attacks within Turkey. Instead of being politically marginalised in its hidden valleys, it is suddenly at the centre of international attention. This will help it try to rebuild its battered political base within Turkey where it suffered defeat in the 1990s and where its leader Abdullah Ocalan has been imprisoned since 1999.

Asked if the Turkish forces could inflict damage on the PKK, one of its fighters, called Intikam, said: "Three out of five of our fighters are hiding in the mountains in Turkey and, if the Turkish army cannot find them there, it will hardly find them in Iraq."

Bozan Tekin and Mizgin Amed, a woman who is also a member of the leadership, hotly deny they are "terrorists" and ask plaintively why there is not more attention given to Kurds who have been killed by the Turkish army. They add that they have been observing a ceasefire since since 1 October 2006 and fight in retaliation for Turkish attacks.

"Since then the Turks have launched 485 attacks on us," says Bozan Tekin. "Even an animal – any living thing – will fight when it feels it is in a dangerous situation," said Mizgin Amed. Both the PKK leaders were chary of giving details of last Sunday's ambush in which at least 16 Turkish soldiers were killed and eight captured. This is because the ambush is a little difficult to square with their defensive posture. But Bozan Tekin said that in reality "35 Turkish soldiers were killed and only three PKK fighters were lightly wounded. We did not lose anyone dead." He claimed that an attack on a minibus, which Turkey blamed on the PKK, was in fact carried out by Turkish soldiers on a Kurdish wedding party.

Overall, although it does not say so openly, the PKK would welcome a Turkish military invasion of northern Iraq because it would embroil Turkey with the Iraqi Kurds and the Iraqi army. It would also pose almost no threat to the PKK.

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