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Turks 'winning', but warned over Kurd rights: Military success alone cannot end nine years of insurgency, writes Hugh Pope in Istanbul, but the colonels are determined to fight on

TURKEY may at last be winning its Kurdish conflict on the military front, diplomats say, as a result of massive operations in south-east Turkey and northern Iraq, tying down more than 300,000 Turkish troops and militiamen.

But diplomats and some influential Turks are warning that military success alone cannot end nine years of crippling insurgency. The key, they say, is a substantial recognition of Kurdish rights. The increasingly nationalist Turkish establishment has so far proved unable to take that step.

'Getting in is much easier than getting out,' warned one Western diplomat. 'We've seen all this in Algeria and Vietnam but the Turks think such parallels just do not apply to them,' said another.

A Turkish spokesman said yesterday that 103 Turkish Kurdish guerrillas and six Turkish soldiers had been killed since several thousand Turkish troops crossed into a remote mountain area of northern Iraq on 12 April. Operations were continuing there on a front nine miles deep and 15 miles wide, as well as in two war zones inside south-eastern Turkey, he added.

'We are determined to remove all threats from the region. We'll continue for as long as it takes,' said Colonel Dogu Silahcioglu, a spokesman for the Turkish army. Turkish newspapers have raised the possibility of a 10-mile deep security zone all along the border inside northern Iraq, from which guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers' Party have been infiltrating Turkey.

One Western intelligence expert said the Turkish troop build-up has forced thousands of an estimated 10,000 guerrillas to flee to anti- Turkish countries such as Armenia and Greece, or to remote areas of Iran and northern Iraq. 'The guerrillas have got their backs to the wall,' he said.

Turkish experts believe new appeals for peace and talks by the Kurdish guerrilla leader, Abdullah Ocalan, reflect this weakness. Mr Ocalan told the newspaper Ozgur Gundem he was only fighting for more Kurdish rights, not for an independent state for the 12 million ethnic Kurds of Turkey or the 20 million Kurds of the Middle East.

The Turkish general staff apparently believes that Turgut Ozal, the late Turkish leader, made a serious mistake in sponsoring a March 1993 cease-fire, which saved the guerrillas from a planned offensive. Many officers believe that the local population must simply be made to fear the army more than they fear Mr Ocalan's guerrillas from the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

The President, Suleyman Demirel, has made ambiguous hints of constitutional compromise. The Social Democrats, the junior partner in the coalition government, are trying to link long-promised Kurdish liberalisation to economic reforms. But the position of the Prime Minister, Tansu Ciller, is weak, and she seems unable to think differently from the military.

Not everybody is hard line. Some influential Turks think it is time to move on from the blanket denial of the Kurdish identity, started by the country's founder, Kemal Ataturk, after the first modern Kurdish revolt in 1925.

'The whole military initiative has passed into military hands,' said Gungor Mengi, the chief commentator of the newspaper Sabah. 'To make this victory permanent we must accept the Kurdish identity. This is the only way to isolate terror from the people'. Amnesty International is concerned about the fate of Kurdish activists. It cited a case on 9 April of two men in the main Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, ordered to be released from police custody by a court. Instead they were found shot dead in a field four days later.

Western powers have soft-pedalled their criticism because of Turkey's parlous finances and a perceived role as a Western ally in a tough neighbourhood, threatened by Russian ambitions and Islamic fundamentalists. That may not last for ever. 'I find many of my Turkish friends extraordinarily complacent about human rights abuses', Michael Lake, the representative of the European Commission, said.