Turks and Kurds may pull back from the brink: The issues behind the ethnic rebellion are out in the open, Hugh Pope writes from Istanbul

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ANYBODY who has watched a Turkish street fight or blood feud knows that at some point, even after generations, onlookers or intermediaries will drag the two combatants apart, save their honour and usher in some kind of bruised peace.

Turks and Kurds must pray that such an interlocutor surfaces soon to save them from themselves. The country stands at the most dangerous crossroads yet of its ethnic Kurdish rebellion, and a wrong turning could consign its 60 million people to civil war, a return to military rule and even greater divisions.

A record number of people have died this year as the rebel Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and Turkish security forces have fought each other to a bloody stalemate in a nine- year war that President Suleyman Demirel says has killed more than 10,000 troops, guerrillas and civilians.

The government is distributing guns along the dividing line between mainly Kurdish and mainly Turkish areas of eastern Turkey; Kurdish rebels are killing Turkish teachers in their villages and Turkish villages are refusing to accept Kurdish refugees in theirs. Some observers even fear, in the words of the former French ambassador to Turkey, Eric Rouleau, that a 'civil war of the Yugoslav type can no longer be considered far- fetched'.

Things are not that simple, however. Turkey has been pouring in troop reinforcements to the mostly Kurdish south-east, with some estimates of 150,000 to 250,000 men committed. But they have been unable to crush the 10,000 Kurdish guerrillas, whose numbers and area of influence seem to increase by the week.

The guerrillas feel the wind in their sails, but they too have limitations. More than half of the country's 12 million Kurds live in western Turkey and have much to lose if divisions increase. Even a majority of Kurds in the south-east know how poor their region is and its dependency on Turkey.

The PKK - which has emerged as the spokesman for Kurdish rights thanks to its own elimination of opposition and Turkey's crushing of even the most moderate Kurdish nationalists - has, however, hit the ball into Turkey's court. It has scaled back talk of an independent state uniting the 20 million Kurds of the Middle East split between Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. The Syrian-based PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, has also offered a return to the hopeful two-month ceasefire earlier this year and talks on a federation and Kurdish cultural and educational rights.

Turkey is only just emerging from paralysis in the debate about what to do next, dominated so far by an old guard stuck in the belief that any concession to Kurdish ethnic rights will automatically open the way to a division of Turkey such as seems to be happening in northern Iraq.

The grim-faced armed forces chief of staff, General Dogan Gures, still insists the rebels are terrorists who must 'surrender or die'. He recently threatened that Turkey will kill rebel leaders in their headquarters in Syria and Europe.

Commentators say the military is also piling pressure on the young government of Turkey's first woman Prime Minister, Tansu Ciller, to draw up a harsh new anti-terrorism law including strict curbs on the media. If she does not, she is said to face army demands for outright military rule.

Mrs Ciller has twisted and turned, supporting reforms one moment and military offensives the next. She plans to unveil her new strategy today. Its public face is likely to be a plan to transfer the anti- rebel fight to units currently being specially trained, and renewed warnings to Syria and other neighbours to end support for the rebels.

But, to an unprecedented extent, commentators, politicians and Mrs Ciller herself privately understand that the main problem is how to manage recognition of Kurdish rights inside Turkey, the best way to undercut the mainspring of the PKK's support among disaffected Kurds.

Turkey's volatile public opinion may still mostly follow the lead of inflammatory headlines in the popular press. But in the big city middle classes and the Turkish elite, influential voices are beginning to insist publicly that alternative methods must be found for ending the war. Most striking was an appeal this week by the head of the union of Turkey's top businessmen, Halis Komili, that military means alone would solve nothing without social and political reforms as well.

Murat Karayalcin, the ambitious new leader of the Social Democrats and Deputy Prime Minister in the coalition government, has said he will not sign blatantly undemocratic measures. The Ankara-based Turkish Daily News repeatedly and openly espouses views sympathetic to the Kurds that would have been quite unthinkable just a few years ago.

There would be many more independent voices in Turkey were it not for the PKK's repeated terrorist outrages. Turkey, for its part, cannot expect goodwill from Kurds as long as the Turkish security forces shoot up Kurdish towns, empty Kurdish villages (about 1,000 so far) and fail to prosecute the perpetrators of hundreds of death squad-style murders of Kurdish nationalists.

In the short term, unfortunately, bloodshed will continue until the 'military solution' has finally been proved unworkable. But the issues are now out in the open. Ministers acknowledge there is a war going on and powerful private television stations discuss the problem with a frankness never seen on state television news. Even the Foreign Ministry goes as far as to say that the Kemalist Turkish state is now an 'ethnic mosaic'.

(Photograph omitted)