ISTANBUL // High-profile arrests of leading activists of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, in western Europe have dealt a blow to the Kurdish rebel group that has been fighting against Turkey for 26 years, and Ankara hopes the police action heralds a new era of increased international pressure on the rebels.
"We do find the attitude of many European countries to be more serious than before," Selim Yenel, the deputy undersecretary in Turkey's foreign ministry, wrote in an e-mail. "This is a welcome development and we do hope that it will continue to be taken seriously." Remzi Kartal and Zubeyir Aydar, two high-ranking PKK members in western Europe, were among 20 suspects arrested by police in Belgium on March 4. Mr Kartal and Mr Aydar, former parliamentary deputies of a Kurdish party in Turkey, were charged and put into custody, along with six other suspects. They are accused of trying to recruit fighters for PKK training camps in northern Iraq and Greece.
Turkey is preparing an extradition request for Mr Aydar, who has been living in Sweden, Turkish news reports said. "This action by Belgium, following [earlier operations in] Italy and France, carries a very strong message to groups and organisations providing financial resources for terrorist activities," Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey's foreign minister, told reporters after the raids. Police in Belgium also searched a studio of Roj-TV, a television station close to the PKK that broadcasts from Europe and that is widely watched in Turkey's Kurdish areas. The PKK took up arms for Kurdish self-rule in 1984 and has been conducting its campaign against Ankara from a mountain hideout in northern Iraq.
"They force war on us," Murat Karayilan, the acting leader of the PKK, said after the arrests in Belgium, according to pro-Kurdish media. "They want to sow fear. They want to put pressure on the Kurdish community." Western Europe is an important base for the PKK. Voluntary contributions and protection money raised among the Kurdish diaspora of several hundred thousand people in Europe generate funds for the rebels. The PKK also recruits fighters in Europe, while Europe-based media outlets such as Roj-TV bring the rebel group's messages to audiences in Turkey and beyond. Western governments also accuse the PKK of being active in drug-trafficking to Europe.
Turkey has long complained that European governments do not do enough to curb the PKK's activities in their countries although the rebel group is listed as a terrorist organisation in the European Union. Ankara suspects that European politicians have long tended to leave the PKK alone as long as the Kurdish group does not stir unrest in their countries. But that attitude may be changing, observers say. Police in Italy and France have arrested more than 100 PKK followers since late February, pro-Kurdish media reported. On March 5, one day after the police raids in Belgium, German police arrested Haci Ehmedi, the leader of the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan, or PJAK, the PKK's arm in Iran. In late January, Hasan Adir, the PKK's leader in Germany, was arrested while trying to enter the Netherlands.
Those operations "carry the signs of a serious change" in the way Europe deals with the PKK, Mehmet Ozcan, an expert on the Kurdish rebels, wrote in an analysis for the Institution for International Strategic Studies, or USAK, a think tank in Ankara. Mr Ozcan wrote that Turkish security officials had succeeded in convincing their European counterparts that the PKK was not only a problem for Ankara. "The PKK's European wing is involved in all kinds of activities that threaten domestic security in Europe, including drug smuggling, human trafficking and arms trafficking."
Another factor behind the change is pressure by the United States on the Europeans, Mr Ozcan wrote. Last year, the US government, which also regards the PKK as a terrorist group, accused Mr Aydar as well as Karayilan and Ali Riza Altun, the PKK's treasurer, of drug smuggling as a means to finance the PKK. The office of foreign assets control of the US treasury department said that the designation of the three men as drug traffickers "freezes any assets the three designees may have under US jurisdiction and prohibits US persons from conducting financial or commercial transactions with these individuals".
Turkish news reports suggest the PKK is in dire financial straits. It is not yet clear how the PKK will react to the latest arrests in Europe. There have been threats to stage terror attacks in Belgium, according to Turkish news reports, but no major incident has been reported. Some commentators in Turkey think the PKK, in an effort to ease the new pressure coming from Europe, could abandon its highly critical position towards a recent initiative by the government in Ankara to solve the Kurdish conflict by widening democratic rights, a plan called Kurdish Opening.