x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Tensions between Turks and Kurds escalate after 13 soldiers die in clash

Turkish PM hints at tougher stance as observer says PKK is using violence as a tool in order to convince the government to reach an agreement with the Kurdish BDP party over its parliamentary boycott.

Demonstrators shout slogans against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) during a demonstration in Istanbul on Sunday after Kurdish fighters killed 13 Turkish soldiers in the worst clash since the PKK ended a ceasefire in February.
Demonstrators shout slogans against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) during a demonstration in Istanbul on Sunday after Kurdish fighters killed 13 Turkish soldiers in the worst clash since the PKK ended a ceasefire in February.

ISTANBUL // The deaths of 13 Turkish soldiers in a clash with Kurdish rebels has put the Kurdish issue back on the country's political agenda and has led to a renewed escalation of tensions between Turks and Kurds.

The soldiers died in fighting in the Silvan district in the predominantly Kurdish province of Diyarbakir in Turkey's south-east on July 14. They were part of an operation launched because militants of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, a Kurdish rebel group, kidnapped two soldiers and a health official several days before.

The relatively high number of deaths in a single encounter between the military and the PKK was partly the result of a fire that started when a hand grenade thrown by PKK fighters set dry grass alight, the office of the general staff in Ankara said in a statement. Seven PKK fighters died in the clash, it added.

The PKK is outlawed and regarded as a terrorist group by Turkey and much of the West.

Last weekend, tens of thousands of people marched in demonstrations across the country to protest against the PKK and to show support for the troops fighting the rebels. "We are all soldiers," was one widely used slogan. In some cities, offices of the Party for Peace and Democracy, or BDP, Turkey's main Kurdish party, were attacked by crowds.

In another sign of growing tensions, members of a concert audience of several thousand people in Istanbul booed and threw plastic bottles and seat cushions on the stage when Aynur Dogan, a Kurdish singer, performed a song in Kurdish. In the incident two days after the death of the soldiers, Dogan was forced to leave the stage. Yesterday, a group of artists issued a statement in support of Dogan. Speaking for the group, singer Yasemin Goksu said Dogan had become the victim of a "lynch culture".

The PKK has been fighting for Kurdish self-rule in south-east Turkey since 1984, but the conflict, which has claimed tens of thousands of lives and has driven millions from their homes, remains unresolved. The government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, promised to solve the issue by widening rights for Turkey's estimated 12 million Kurds, but the initiative was quietly shelved last year after protests from nationalists.

After the deaths of the soldiers, Mr Erdogan hinted at a tougher stance. "I say it loud and clear that the PKK and its supporters, after these ill-intentioned actions, cannot expect any goodwill from us," he told reporters last Friday.

Pro-Kurdish media, some non-governmental organisations and BDP officials all expressed doubts about the official version of events leading to the death of the soldiers. After several groups' inspections of the clash site, Raci Bilici, secretary of the Diyarbakir branch of the Human Rights Association, quoted villagers as saying the fire started after military helicopters had dropped bombs in the area.

According to news reports, the clash marked the first time the PKK felt bold enough to ambush a military unit in daylight. PKK fighters observed the unit for some time and started the attack when the soldiers stopped to take a rest after a long march in the summer heat, the reports said.

Nihat Ali Ozcan, an analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey, or Tepav, a think tank in Ankara, said yesterday: "The PKK is sending a message to the public in Turkey. It is saying, 'Here I am, I can do anything I want in this area.'"

The BDP, which won more than 30 parliamentary seats in last month's general elections, has refused to send its deputies to Ankara to take their places in the assembly, after election authorities and the courts stripped some elected BDP deputies of their seats. Negotiations between the BDP and Mr Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, to secure a return of the BDP to parliament, broke down last week.

The BDP boycott is significant because the newly elected parliament, where the AKP has an absolute majority but not enough seats to push through major reform on its own, is supposed to work out a new and more democratic constitution for the country to replace the current one, written under military rule in 1982.

Mr Ozcan of the Tepav think tank said the row about the BDP boycott also played a part in the decision by the PKK to step up its activities.

"They are using violence as a tool in order to convince the government to reach an agreement with the BDP," he said. Turkish nationalists regard the BDP as the PKK's political wing. The party is the latest reincarnation of several Kurdish groups which were banned by Turkey's courts in the past because they were seen as PKK vehicles.

One day after the deadly clash in Silvan, the Democratic Society Congress, or DTK, a pro-Kurdish umbrella organisation dominated by the BDP, published what it called a declaration of autonomy for the Kurdish area of Turkey. The declaration was largely symbolic, as Turkey's centrally structured republic gives little room for regional self-rule, but was a political message that raised tensions further because it had the potential to be interpreted as a support for separatism. A state prosecutor immediately started an investigation against DTK members.

tseibert@thenational.ae