Turkish troops mass for attack on Kurd rebels

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The Independent Online
The Turkish army is intensifying its campaign against guerrillas from the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK), and has stepped up what appear to be preparations for an assault on the party's strongholds in northern Iraq.

Over the course of the past 10 days, the military says that it has killed 174 PKK members in at least a dozen trouble spots in Turkey's south-east. Now, The Independent has learnt that between 50,000 and 70,000 troops, accompanied by armoured cars and artillery units, have gathered in preparation for an attack in northern Iraq, from where the PKK launches hit-and-run assaults on Turkish territory.

The Turkish authorities have made no comment on the build-up, but local sources say that the army has positioned men along a 250km stretch of border, is busy laying roads, and has cancelled leave.

Observers think that the Turkish military has planned an operation to try and wipe out PKK camps in northern Iraq. Turkey claims the right - contested feebly by Saddam Hussein's government in Baghdad - to engage in what it calls "hot pursuit" of PKK militants some distance into Iraqi territory.

In recent years, this principle has been mobilised to justify cross-border operations involving tens of thousands of men. As Turkish F16s continue to soften up targets in northern Iraq, it looks as though the Turks are on the verge of using it once more.

To the frustration of academy-educated generals, however, less predictable factors must also be taken into account. The timing of a substantial incursion into northern Iraq depends in large measure on the attitude adopted by the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), one of an array of Kurdish groups jostling for control of the "safe haven" in northern Iraq set up by the Allies at the end of the Gulf War, which has remained outside Saddam Hussein's control ever since.

The KDP is important since it controls much of Iraq's border with Turkey; KDP peshmergas (guerrillas) make useful guides through mountainous terrain unfamiliar to Turkish regular soldiers. The problem is that past experience seems to have made the KDP circumspect.

Before the Turks launched a big cross-border offensive last spring, it was agreed that, in return for co-operation, the KDP would benefit from observation facilities inside a "security zone" to be set up by the Turks inside northern Iraq. This zone - along, some say, with promised cash and arms - never materialised.

Last week, sources in Diyarbakir - from where the Turkish government implements its policy in the region - said that the Turkish army was negotiating with the KDP in the border town of Silopi. The KDP must be convinced of the wisdom of supporting a fresh offensive against the well-armed, professionally-minded PKK, from whom they might expect retribution if things do not go well.

Whatever the result of the negotiations, sceptics doubt whether the Turks can deliver the decisive blow against the PKK which they have promised for so long. Much of what the PKK refers to as Kurdistan - which includes chunks of Iran, Syria, Iraq and Turkey - might have been sculpted with guerrilla warfare in mind.

The PKK already controls an important chunk of land around its camp of Zap, 20km inside Iraqi territory. Zap is important for the PKK's developing political identity; it is here that its"government in exile" is expected to move. This makes it the logical target of a Turkish operation.

Observers point out that intensified activity in the area sits oddly alongside Turkey's official line: that the 13-year-long war with the PKK, which has cost more than 22,000 lives and displaced around 2.5 million people, has been all but won.