Turks vie with Kurds for New Year honours

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The Independent Online
TURKEY'S denial of a separate identity for its Kurdish minority reached new heights of incongruity yesterday as the state staged a psychological take-over of Nowruz, the celebrations for the first day of spring that Turkish Kurds usually use to mark their struggle for greater ethnic rights.

The result was the somewhat absurd situation where Turkish state television was inviting everyone out on the streets to celebrate while the guerrillas ordered Kurds to stay at home. About 300 foreign observers found the local population subdued as Turkish security forces and Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) guerrillas struggled to swing the balance of fear in their favour. Luckily there was little violence.

'You could either say that the PKK stayed away and the street demonstrations were successful or that, with so many armed policemen on the streets, discretion was the better part of valour,' Lord Eric Avebury said by telephone from the eastern city of Van, where he was an observer.

Turkey also tried a charm offensive, 'laying out the red carpet' for Lord Avebury's delegation and promising local official co-operation. The charm did not work with a 52-strong group of German observers who arrived in Van on Sunday. They closed ranks when police insisted on questioning their three Kurdish translators, leading to fisticuffs and a several-hour stand-off after which they were all bundled on to the next plane out.

The Kurdish nationalist Remzi Kartal, acting leader of the Democracy Party, said the real attitude of the Turkish state was shown by a decision yesterday from the highest court of appeal. The Constitutional Court rejected an appeal by the party's leader and five other of its 16 members of the Turkish Grand National Assembly to overturn a parliamentary vote to strip them of their immunity from prosecution.

The six are in prison in Ankara and have been charged with treason. They could face the death sentence for separatism and alleged links with the rebel guerrillas. The Constitutional Court did overturn parliament's decision to strip the immunity of a seventh deputy, Selim Sadak, facing lesser but similar charges after making a speech.

'The cancellation of the decision about Sadak shows that the parliament and state security courts acted illegally all along,' said Mr Kartal, a 46-year-old dentist from Van. 'It shows that the state is insisting on rejecting a political solution to the Kurdish problem.'

Turkey's 12 million Kurds make up about one in five of the population, dominating the south-east of the country. Anyone who accepts a Turkish ethnic cultural identity can rise far. The Turkish Foreign Minister and at least 80 members of the 450-seat parliament are Kurds. But Turkey's leaders see a massive rise in explicitly Kurdish nationalism in the past decade as a mortal threat to the country's survival.

The Turkish Prime Minister, Tansu Ciller, has pushed for Nowruz to be made into an official holiday in Turkey. But Western diplomats say that she has handed over most control of the anti-guerrilla fight to the Turkish armed forces, a state of affairs that Western governments rarely criticise, being keen to sell arms and also to support a rather shaky Nato ally.

The US assistant Secretary of State, Stephen Oxman, tried to tell Turkey again this month that it was imperative to seek a political dimension to solve Turkey's Kurdish problem, not merely to use military suppression. But diplomats said he was greeted by silence and appeals for solidarity against terrorism.

'The Turks have become less careful,' said one Western diplomat, a euphemism for the rarely explained killings of 70 of the Democracy Party's officials in recent years and the burning and evacuation by the security forces of hundreds of Kurdish villages and hamlets. 'It is leading to polarisation. I'm seriously concerned about the future (unity) of the country.'

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