Turks' offensive against Kurds alarms EU

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Eighteen leaders of Turkey's only legal Kurdish political party went on trial in Ankara yesterday as thousands of Turkish troops continued an offensive against Kurdish rebels in the violence-ridden south-east.

A state prosecutor told the court that the People's Democracy Party (Hadep) was a front for the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the rebel group fighting the armed forces in the south-east. The Kurdish politicians are accused of "leadership of an armed gang" and face up to 22 years in prison if convicted. Another 23 lower-ranking party members face maximum sentences of 15 years.

The trial has attracted the attention of European politicians and pressure groups who accuse the Turkish authorities of failing to honour repeated promises to clean up their human rights record. The European Parliament, which only reluctantly approved a European Union customs union with Turkey last year, threatened last week to block EU aid for Turkey unless it improved its performance.

Kurdish politicians formed Hadep in 1994 after Turkey's constitutional court banned another party for alleged separatism. Six Kurdish members of parliament were later imprisoned in a case that almost caused the European Parliament to reject customs union.

The trial coincides with a major anti-Kurdish military operation in the eastern province of Tunceli, where about 20,000 troops backed by bomber aircraft, helicopter gunships and tanks have attacked rebel positions. The mountainous region was visited this week by Turkey's chief of staff, Ismail Hakki Karadayi, who claimed that 1,000 rebels had been killed in the south-east since 15 August.

"Whatever the age of the terrorist hiding in the mountains, we have reduced his life expectancy," the general said. About 20,000 people are believed to have died during the 12-year war in the south-east, where the PKK is fighting for Kurdish autonomy.

In another sign of the tensions surrounding the Kurdish issue, at least nine prisoners, mostly PKK members, died last Tuesday during a riot at a jail in the south-eastern city of Diyarbakir. The riot broke out after prisoners protested that the government had not improved jail conditions, as it promised to do after a nationwide hunger strike that ended last July with 12 inmates starved to death.

Violence flared when inmates at the Diyarbakir prison refused to let the authorities transfer 14 fellow-prisoners to another jail. Prison officials have often dispersed inmates or placed them in single cells as a way of breaking up tight-knit, politically extreme groups that would find it easy to take control of the large, sprawling wards in Turkish prisons.

Kurdish problems have intensified at a sensitive time for the Prime Minister, Necmettin Erbakan, Turkey's first Islamist leader since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. He is attempting to balance traditional closeness to the West with new alliances with Islamic and other non-Western countries.

Yet Mr Erbakan startled the United States, Turkey's main ally, by making Iran the destination of his first foreign trip. He may have upset the US even more by announcing that next week he intends to visit Libya and Nigeria, both out of favour with Western governments.

Meanwhile, his Foreign Minister, Tansu Ciller, shocked the US last weekend by suggesting Turkey would be happy to see President Saddam Hussein take control of northern Iraq. Mrs Ciller's remarks were at sharp odds with US policy, and she quickly withdrew them.