Turkey's rebel Kurds crippled by reign of fear

IN AND around the great, grey walls of medieval Diyarbakir, in the shabby, unsmiling concrete market towns and in the flat-roofed villages dotting the stony plains, the Kurds of south-eastern Turkey are buckling under or getting out.

No expense has been spared and no qualms allowed since Turkey's Armed Forces Chief of Staff, Dogan Gures, and the Prime Minister, Tansu Ciller, linked their fates to the holy grail of 'finishing off' the 10-year-old Kurdish insurgency by the end of this year.

Local trust in state forces may have been shattered, but repression has had a striking effect. Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) rebels have been beaten on to the defensive, Kurdish nationalists intimidated into silence, pro-rebel villages emptied and the south-east flooded with police, commandos, soldiers and gunmen in civilian clothes.

The accommodating language of the late President Turgut Ozal has disappeared. Before he died last year, Mr Ozal had broken 70-year- old taboos against the Kurdish language, culture and political rights. Now the official talk is only of military solutions. The emerging alternative to both the PKK and Ankara is fundamentalist Islam.

'Torture and beating have to be used,' said a Turkish civilian official on the front line of an insurgency that has killed more than 10,600 people since 1984. 'We ask them afterwards: 'why didn't you tell us the truth to start with?' They reply that if they hadn't been tortured the PKK would kill them when they got out . . . We have to use hard methods to show our full strength, we have to fight on equal terms with the terrorists.'

In the past, such methods would only have increased public support for the Marxist PKK, the only group that overtly seeks an independent Kurdish state uniting the 30 million or so Kurds split between Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. About half these Kurds live in Turkey, where they make up about 20 per cent of the population. The PKK, thanks to short-sighted Turkish oppression of even moderate Kurdish nationalism, had successfully forced itself into the position of being their militant standard-bearer.

Now, with a record 4,100 people killed in the south-east just last year, the population is weary of war. Ten years of conflict have brought nothing but bloodshed, fear and depopulation. Human rights groups say security forces have forcibly evacuated nearly 1,000 Kurdish villages. All over the south-east groups of tents and houses of plastic sheeting show village dislocation. Richer townspeople are emigrating to join the half of the Kurdish population already living in western Turkey.

The rebels are on the defensive, their 10,000 militants face Turkish security forces numbering up to 200,000 men. A two-month rebel ceasefire last year marked the high- point of PKK popularity, but its breakdown with a rebel massacre of more than 30 unarmed soldiers in May was a cruel blow to Kurdish, and Turkish, hopes.

Adding to the damage was a return to a rebel policy of massacring the families of Kurds who accept wages and guns from the state to take part in 'Village Guards' units. Also, the attraction felt by modern urban Kurdish youth to the rebels' Stalinist national liberation philosophy is waning. Their fathers have been irked by increasing demands for PKK 'tax' money. And the tough PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, seems remote from day-to- day reality in his safe-houses in Syria and Lebanon.

The gap left by rebel reverses is not, however, being filled by love for the Turkish republic, which has faced almost continuous Kurdish uprisings in its 70 years of existence. The rising force in the region is Islam, whose activists have seductively adopted much of the rhetoric about Kurdish education, broadcasting and free speech to show that Turks, Kurds and the south-east's many Arabs should find a new harmony under an Islamic roof.

The Islamists include a Kurdish version of Hizbollah (Party of God). Hizbollah and its protectors in the security forces have been blamed for many of the 500 'unsolved murders' in the south-east since 1990, most of them Kurdish nationalists or PKK sympathisers. Hizbollah activists have even been caught trying to organise in far-away Istanbul.

The connivance of some of the local authorities, hoping to use Islam to oust Kurdish nationalists, is clear. In Batman, the only local television station tolerated is The Call, run from the Welfare Party headquarters by a group of hardened, bearded militants.

'The government has cut off one head of the dragon and another has grown in its place,' said a well- placed source in the city. 'But the PKK only wanted Kurdistan. The Islamists want the whole country.'

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