x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Turkey fears that unrest is escalating Kurd attacks

Concern mounts in Ankara that insurgents are using Syrian conflict as cover to unleash an offensive for self-rule that killed 22 yesterday.

ISTANBUL // While international attention is focused on fighting in Syria, Turkey's military is battling Kurdish rebels in one of the most lethal border clashes in years, with at least 22 people killed in fighting yesterday and as many as 115 Kurdish rebels killed in the past two weeks.

The escalation of bloodshed along Turkey's south-eastern frontier with Iraq comes amid mounting concerns in Ankara that the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has been fighting for Kurdish self-rule since 1984, may be seeking to take advantage of the upheaval embroiling the regime of Bashar Al Assad to expand their influence in heavily Kurdish areas in Turkey's south-east. The latest outbreak of violence occurred when PKK insurgents stormed a Turkish army post near the Iraq border early yesterday morning, said Orhan Alimoglu, the governor of Turkey's Hakkari province.

The attack near the town of Gecimli triggered fighting that left at least 22 people dead, including 14 PKK fighters, six soldiers and two members of a pro-government Kurdish militia, the Anatolia news agency quoted Mr Alimoglu as saying. The ANF news agency, which speaks for the PKK, put the number of dead soldiers at 12.

The assault, which Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan condemned as a "dastardly act", came two weeks into an offensive by Turkish forces around the nearby town of Semdinli. Sait Caglayan, head of the Hakkari chapter of Turkey's Human Rights Association, called it the "most serious fighting in years".

"You can see and hear fighter planes and helicopters from the centre of Semdinli, and several villages in the area have been evacuated," Mr Caglayan from Hakkari province, adding that non-governmental organisations, including his, have been prevented from visiting areas where fighting is taking place.

Esat Canan, a lawmaker from Hakkari representing the Party of Peace and Democracy (BDP), Turkey's main Kurdish party, said both sides were deploying large numbers of forces to the area in shows of strength. The fresh fighting between Turkish government troops and Kurdish rebels threatens to further regionalise the conflict between Mr Assad and the opposition fighting to unseat him.

Turkey shares a 900km border with Syria and a 352km frontier with Iraq, and Kurdish rebels carry out cross-border raids from both countries. The Turkish government's calls on Mr Assad to step down and its support for his opponents operating from Turkish soil has given rise to suspicions in Ankara that Mr Assad is giving PKK units in Syria free rein to carry out retaliatory strikes against Turkish targets.

Mr Erdogan declared last month that Turkey would not hesitate to strike against PKK installations on Syrian territory. Ahmet Davutoglu, the foreign minister, said Turkey would not put up with "terrorist structures" near the border.

The new fighting in Hakkari province serves as a reminder to Ankara of the fragility of Turkey's border with Iraq, as well as Syria.

The fighting around Semdinli started when the military sent fighter planes and attack helicopters to the area after several hundred rebels allegedly crossed into south-eastern Turkey from northern Iraq, where the PKK has its headquarters.

Idris Naim Sahin, the Turkish interior minister, reportedly told officials of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) that about 500 rebels had crossed the border from Iraq to raise the PKK flag on Turkish territory and to signal that "the state is not here, but we are". The PKK later said it had gained control of the key road between Semdinli and Gecimli - something not seen in years.

"Much of the road leading to Daglica is under control of the guerrillas," Murat Karayilan, the de-facto PKK leader since the capture of the group's founder Abdullah Ocalan in 1999, told ANF. He was referring to the town of Daglica, between Semdinli and the village of Gecimli, scene of the PKK attack on the military post. "There are guerrillas 35 kilometres inside [Turkish territory] in the Semdinli area," claimed Murat Karayilan, the de-facto leader of the PKK since the capture of the group's founder Abdullah Ocalan in 1999.The PKK presence in northern Iraq has been a chronic source of friction in strained relations between Turkey and Baghdad.

Turkey's military has staged numerous cross-border attacks on PKK installations in Iraq, steps that last month prompted the Iraqi government to warn of retaliation.

tseibert@thenational.ae