The war between Kurds and Turks heats up: Hopes for a peaceful settlement of an eight-year-old conflict are being swept away by the disintegration of political dialogue and rapidly escalating violence on both sides, reports Hugh Pope from Ankara

MORE than 50 people have died in Turkey's Kurdish war in just four days, part of an upsurge of violence that is sweeping aside hopes of an early democratic and peaceful solution to the escalating eight-year-old conflict.

A dialogue between the Turkish government and Kurdish nationalists that tentatively started when Suleyman Demirel, the Prime Minister, formed a coalition government nine months ago, has broken down.

All but two of 20 Kurdish nationalist deputies have left the coalition in recent weeks.

'They didn't accept a single one of our suggestions. The political dialogue is cut,' said Mahmut Alinak, one of the parliamentarians. 'Huge state repression is being applied in the south-east, torture is rising. Many people are joining the PKK (Kurdish rebels) as their only choice.'

Despite all its efforts, or probably because of the way its security forces carry them out, Turkey has been unable to eradicate this Marxist-Stalinist organisation that refines and smuggles drugs, executes 'collaborators' and their families, extorts money from Kurds in Europe and is labelled terrorist by several countries, including Britain.

'The PKK wants to do things by force. We wanted to do it democratically, legally,' said Mr Alinak. 'But the security forces beat people up in front of us, swear at us. That makes people lose hope in what we stand for.'

There are at least another 40 old-fashioned 'assimilated' Kurds in the parliament, including Hikmet Cetin, the Turkish Foreign Minister. But they command little mass support and the failed coalition experiment has washed out one of the last institutional bridges between the state and the new and politically more important Kurdish radicals.

Two different worlds are developing: a Turkish West, with the economic dynamism of Istanbul, the pleasant streets of Ankara and lovely Mediterranean coastline; and a Kurdish East, with plains and mountains of raw beauty, relatively poor, dusty towns, big families, and its soldiers, curfews and bloodshed.

By crude estimates, Kurds make up 20 per cent or 12 million of Turkey's 57 million people, more than half of them living in the West, some refugees from the fighting but mostly attracted by hopes of economic advancement.

Unprecedented television coverage of south-eastern violence this year has rolled back the blanket of 70 years of state assimilation policies, bringing a new national awareness among Kurds and an anti-Kurdish backlash among Turks.

Mutual understanding was shown to be low by a poll in the mass-circulation Sabah. About 55 per cent of Turks thought that the problem was a Kurdish wish for an independent state, but only 1 per cent of Kurds agreed. The Turks saw the main problem as economic, while a third of Kurds said it was simply the old story of state oppression.

Turkey has so far hoped that somehow the 70-year-old mix of economic development, Turkish nationalism and raw force would keep Turks and Kurds bound together and spare its people the end-game ethnic struggles of its neighbours in the Levant, Balkans and the Caucasus.

The government's tactic of re- asserting is authority by force has worked in the past; some diplomats believe it can still keep Kurdish nationalism down.

Promised liberalisation has evaporated, the Kurds are still denied any 'minority' status and the issue of Kurdish television is no longer even on the agenda. Human rights groups say there are summary executions by both sides, particularly death squad- style killings of Kurdish nationalists in the south-east.

Sources close to Mr Demirel say he is simply too busy to deal with the Kurdish question, especially since the PKK and Kurdish nationalist movements have great internal problems and lack strong leadership. Pro-Kurdish moves can also only lose Mr Demirel votes in his western Turkish power base.

But much has changed since the start of the PKK's armed struggle in August 1984. The government says the group can field 10,000 guerrillas under the protection of an impromptu alliance of Turkey's rivals: Syria, Iraq and Iran. About 4,200 people have died in the fighting, a quarter of them in the past six months - about five a day on average.

After last year's Kurdish exodus from Iraq, foreign governments and public opinion, especially in Germany, are also now firmly engaged on the Kurdish question.

'The Demirel government has left the Kurdish problem to time . . . this is a great mistake,' said a report by Adnan Kahveci, an opposition deputy and former minister under the centre-right Motherland Party. 'We must stop the hidden and fast-rising separation (of Kurds and Turks) and accept Kurdish language and political rights. Otherwise we will have a civil war very soon.'

(Photographs omitted)