Turkish Kurds charmed but unconvinced by PM's rhetoric: Hugh Pope watches Tansu Ciller on tour as she tries to end a conflict that threatens to bring further division and loss of life

FOR THE rebellious Turkish Kurds of Hakkari, the launch of an attempt by the Turkish premier, Tansu Ciller, to win back their hearts and minds was not just a matter of adding to the asphalt spread in her honour on the dusty roads of this remote mountain town.

The question was whether Mrs Ciller was ready to respect their Kurdish identity, to allow Kurdish television programmes, to permit teaching in Kurdish or even discuss the concept that Turkey's unitary state should evolve into a Kurdish-Turkish federation.

Turkey's first female prime minister did not come close to such demands, despite hints at ethnic equality and democratic compromises in parliament. Indeed, she took no clear stand in the debate over military, economic and political solutions to a conflict which, if left unsolved, may one day split the country and spill much blood. Her ideas were a concoction of many elements, including appeals to Islamic brotherhood, apparently hoping that her conquering style could overcome an intractable substance.

The mere fact of her visit signalled acknowledgement of a need for radical measures to bridge a growing ethnic rift between Turks and Kurds after nine years of guerrilla warfare that have killed more than 6,500 people. About 12 million of Turkey's 60 million people are Kurds, a group with a Turkified culture, but they are also part of the 20 to 30 million Kurds divided between Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran.

'Turks and Kurds are all the same . . . we are like the finger and fingernail,' Mrs Ciller said in her speeches, brandishing a manicured hand at sometimes dubious, sometimes enthusiastic crowds of Kurdish townspeople watched over by crack Turkish police commandos girdled in Rambo-style ammunition belts.

Mrs Ciller described her tour as a goodwill gesture. She forced her Cabinet ministers, half of whom had never been to the poor Kurdish south-east, to meet in Hakkari and unveil a pounds 140m plan for farmers and foresters of two provinces on the Iraqi border. She repeatedly promised a mother's love, thousands of new jobs, many visits to the region, and an equal share for all in Turkey.

For many Kurds this may not be enough, having heard many unfulfilled promises of investment or jobs before, and living in towns still dominated by old slogans like 'how happy is he who says he is a Turk'.

'This economic policy is like the asphalt. It will be used up in a few days. The whole basic concept is wrong,' said one of a group of Kurdish youths at a Hakkari tea shop. Whereas Mrs Ciller, the Turkish state and many Western governments treat the rebel guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) as terrorists because of their massacres of women and children, the youths identify with the group as the heart of their Kurdish struggle.

Human rights violations are in full swing on both sides, as alleged in a handbill of complaints pushed into reporters' hands in Hakkari.

'Three nights ago the army came and surrounded our village, Ikizce. They forced us out and burnt it down,' said Mehmet Katan, a 26-year-old truck driver.

The armed forces chief of staff, General Dogan Gures, accompanied Mrs Ciller to an empty mountain landscape at the point where the Turkish, Iranian and Iraqi borders meet. The army is pressing for a military solution to the insurgency.

Mrs Ciller had added a pair of walking shoes to her favoured white suit and large scarf.

'Do they have hot water here?' she asked, inspecting a tiny, two-man army tent at a mountain base attacked twice by rebels in the past month. (They did). 'I love to camp,' she said. 'But there wasn't the sound of artillery fire.' Mrs Ciller's charm may be a show, but it sometimes worked as well on hard-bitten Kurds as it has on the Turkish population as a whole. The town of Sirnak was so devastated during a controversial army counter-attack after a rebel raid last year that most houses are still riddled with bullet holes. Buildings along Mrs Ciller's route that had been bombed had to be disguised with wooden hoardings. Yet many Kurdish inhabitants applauded her with gusto.

'I know she'll let us down,' said one youth. 'But we don't often see anything nice and pretty here. We'll do anything for a bit of hope.'

(Map omitted)