Abductions highlight Turkey’s ongoing civil conflict


Ankara : The abduction of three German mountaineers from their tents at a base camp on Mount Ararat in eastern Turkey has brought back into the spotlight the issue of the Kurdish Workers’ Party’s (PKK) decades-long fight for independence or autonomy for the mainly Kurdish-populated south-east.

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The latest incident appears to show that the PKK is as strong as ever, despite a week-long Turkish offensive into northern Iraq earlier this year aimed at destroying the PKK’s ability to use its mountainous hideouts to launch attacks inside Turkey proper.

Almost every day there are reports of Turkish soldiers being wounded or killed in firefights.

The number of clashes, the hostage-taking and the rising incidence of soldiers being injured or killed by mines left by PKK rebels is nowhere near as high as in the early 1990s, when the conflict was its height.

But it is a significant increase compared to the start of the century when Turkey claimed its biggest success in its fight against the PKK: The capture in 1999 of separatist leader Abdullah Ocalan.

In a feat that captured the imagination of Turkey, commandos arrested Ocalan in the Kenyan capital Nairobi. Filmed with his capturers on a flight back to Turkey, Ocalan seemed a broken man. He said he was ready to do anything for the Turkish state and that he was a man of peace.

At his trial for high treason Ocalan said the PKK no longer wanted independence for south-east Turkey but instead greater cultural rights and he called for an bilateral ceasefire.

The PKK has since declared a number of unilateral ceasefires and fighting fell to extremely low levels in the early 2000s, low enough for emergency rule in the south-east to be lifted in 2002.

At the time it appeared the Turkish military had won its battle with the PKK and the separatists appeared to have lost its appetite for battle.

By 2003, however, hardline elements within the PKK annoyed at Turkey’s failure to make significant moves on the Kurdish issue were successful in having the attacks relaunched.

Using bases in northern Iraq, hundreds of PKK guerrillas were crossing the Iraq border into Turkey. One splinter group, the Kurdish Freedom Falcons also carried out a number of bombings in western Turkey resort towns.

The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 gave hope to Turkey that the PKK would be forced to close down its northern Iraqi camps. The difficulty in holding Iraq together forced Washington to abandon its promises to deal with the PKK forcing Turkey to act on its own.

In February Turkish troops backed by helicopter gunships and warplanes poured across the border. In a short operation the Turkish military said it had killed more than 200 PKK separatists and destroyed a number of camps. Since then the air force has conducted a number of bombing raids on suspected PKK positions in northern Iraq.

Still the attacks happen.

Anadolu news agency reported that two soldiers have been killed in an armed clash with PKK guerrillas in the south-eastern province of Sirnak, two more to add to the more than 32,000 killed since fighting began in the early 1990s.

Operations are continuing in and around Ararat in an attempt to rescue the German mountaineers taken hostage almost a week ago.

No matter what happens to the German hostages, those operations in east and south-eastern Turkey look set to continue for some time.