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Kurdish rebels tell Turkey: keep your promises or ceasefire is over

Northern Iraq,Catrina Stewart
Tuesday 19 October 2010 00:00 BST

Kurdish rebels will end their military ceasefire at the end of the month if Turkey hounds its supporters and prepares for an attempt to rout the group after 26 years of conflict, their leader told The Independent from his mountain hideout in northern Iraq.

Murat Karayilan said time was running out for the Turkish authorities to pursue a peaceful solution amid suspicions that Turkey was drumming up support from Syria and Iran to rout the guerrilla group, which has entrenched itself in the mountains along Iraq's border with Turkey and Iran.

"During all of [our] ceasefires, the Turkish state has used these periods to try to surround and destroy us," Mr Karayilan, the de facto leader of the 5,000-strong Kurdish Workers' Party, or PKK, said from a secret location in the Qandil mountains in northern Iraq.

"We will wait another 15 days," Mr Karayilan said at the weekend. "If something positive develops, we will extend the unilateral ceasefire. If there are no concrete steps, we will evaluate developments and do what we have to do to defend ourselves."

The PKK has fought since the 1980s to establish an independent Kurdish state separate from Turkey, but in the face of punishing Turkish attacks has rowed back on its demands and will now settle for cultural and political freedoms in Kurdish-majority areas. The conflict has cost tens of thousands of lives, most of them Kurdish.

The PKK had held to a 14-month ceasefire until a suspected PKK proxy blew up a military bus in Istanbul in June. The PKK agreed to renew its ceasefire after Turkish officials promised the movement's jailed leader, Abdullah Ocalan, that it would seek peaceful solutions to end the conflict, the movement's leaders say. The PKK recently extended its ceasefire to 30 October to give the two sides time to pursue a peaceful solution.

But the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has backtracked on promised reforms for the Kurds, including a de facto amnesty for PKK fighters who gave themselves up, in part because of fears that the army and opposition parties will seize on any concessions as a sign of weakness.

Instead, the state has continued with military operations against the Kurdish guerrillas, has rounded up elected pro-Kurdish politicians and human rights defenders accused of supporting the movement's ideology, and has sought Iranian and Syrian assistance to destroy the group. Mr Erdogan has pledged to "annihilate" the PKK, promising that they will "drown in their own blood".

The PKK's leaders have been forced to take elaborate precautions to survive. Reaching the PKK's base in the Qandil mountains involves a four-hour drive from Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish Autonomous Region. Flanked by a dozen guerrillas, Mr Karayilan arrives for the meeting at a tent hidden to the casual observer, and any electronic device that might pinpoint his location is surrendered to a PKK checkpoint.

Bands of fast-moving guerrillas have been able to outrun Turkish offensives, as well as to fend off assaults by their Kurdish brethren in Iraqi Kurdistan. But the movement now fears that Ankara is planning a more sophisticated operation targeting the PKK's leaders with the help of surveillance technology from the US and special forces.

While Turkey may have enlisted regional support in its fight with the PKK, it remains unclear if Ankara would get the necessary support from the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq, which has long tolerated the PKK's presence along its borders. Moreover, some observers fear such a strategy could prompt an even bloodier response.

"If attacks are carried out, all the Kurdish people will be part of the defence strategy," says Mr Karayilan, in a reference to uprisings in Turkish cities, where the PKK has many supporters. "The issue is not between the Turkish state and the PKK. It is between the Turkish state and the Kurdish people." Many Kurds believe the PKK played a critical role in drawing attention to the Kurdish question, but its attacks on Turkish military targets have prompted the US and the European Union, among others, to list it as a terrorist organisation.

A product of socialist ideology, the PKK was formed by a group of Kurdish and Turkish students in the late 1970s, emerging only later as a military movement in response to repressive policies against the Kurds.

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