Kurdish rebels killed at least 12 Turkish soldiers and wounded 16 others in an ambush on Sunday, prompting Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan to call crisis talks to consider a military strike against rebel bases in Iraq.
The attack, one of the worst in more than a decade by rebels of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), came four days after Turkey’s Parliament approved a motion to allow troops to enter northern Iraq to fight guerrillas hiding there.
”We are very angry. … Our Parliament has granted us the authority to act and within this framework we will do whatever has to be done,” Erdogan told reporters.
He said military and government officials would meet at 8pm (5pm GMT) under President Abdullah Gul to decide the response.
Gul said: ”Iraq continues to harbour terrorists and Turkey has the right to eliminate the terrorists. Parliament has given the authorisation for this.”
Turkey’s military general staff said 12 soldiers and 32 rebels were killed in continuing clashes. Turkey shelled areas inside Iraq on Sunday morning but no casualties were reported.
In Iraq, Kurdish rebels said they killed at least 16 Turkish soldiers and had taken ”several” hostage in the clashes.
”We cannot give details on how many we have captured, all I can say is that they are not in Iraq. They are in Turkey,” a senior PKK source told Reuters.
The pro-PKK Firat news agency put the Turkish death toll at 40 and said eight soldiers had been taken hostage. The claims could not be independently verified.
In a separate incident on Sunday, a landmine killed one civilian and wounded at least 13 more in a minibus travelling in a wedding convoy near to where the soldiers were killed.
The United States, Turkey’s Nato ally, and Iraq have urged Ankara to refrain from military action, fearing this could destabilise the most peaceful part of Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein.
Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani said his autonomous region would defend itself if Turkish troops invaded.
”We are not going to be caught up in the PKK and Turkish war, but if the Kurdistan region is targeted, then we are going to defend our citizens,” Barzani told reporters after meeting Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who is also a Kurd.
Turkey has deployed as many as 100 000 troops along the border to try to stop the rebels crossing into Turkey.
With the death toll among Turkish security forces around 40 for the past month alone, Erdogan’s government is under heavy domestic pressure to pursue the PKK into northern Iraq.
Turks staged anti-PKK rallies in Ankara, Istanbul and other Turkish cities and towns after Sunday’s deaths. Opposition politicians urged the government to send troops into Iraq now.
”A cross-border operation must now definitely be carried out,” said Devlet Bahceli, leader of the nationalist MHP.
Cabinet spokesperson Cemil Cicek vowed swift retaliation for every rebel attack, but also urged citizens to stay calm.
Erdogan has appeared reluctant to launch an incursion into Iraq, and Western diplomats said Turkey was concerned about the security, diplomatic and economic risks of such a move, but the latest rebel attacks may have made a military strike inevitable.
”We cannot expect Turkey to remain silent in the face of attacks like these,” Murat Yetkin, a commentator for the liberal Radikal daily told NTV television.
”This attack, coming on a day when Turkey votes in a referendum, is a very clear provocation. It shows the PKK is not interested in democratic initiatives,” Yetkin said.
Turkey voted in a referendum on Sunday to decide whether future presidents will be elected directly by the people instead of by Parliament, as well as on other constitutional changes.
Turkey’s tougher stance has helped propel global oil prices to record highs over the past week. Pipelines carrying Iraqi and Caspian crude cross Turkey.
Ankara blames the PKK for the deaths of more than 30 000 people since the group launched its armed campaign for an ethnic homeland in south-east Turkey in 1984. The United States and European Union class the PKK as a terrorist organisation.
Who are the Kurds?
- The Kurds are a non-Arab, mainly Sunni, speaking a language related to Persian. With no state of their own, they inhabit a mostly mountainous region that overlaps Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria.
- For most of their history they have been under foreign rule. In modern times Iran, Iraq and Turkey have resisted an independent Kurdish state and Western powers have seen no reason to help establish one.
- Kurdish nationalism stirred in the 1890s when the Ottoman Empire was on its last legs. The 1920 Treaty of Sevres, which would have imposed a settlement and colonial carve-up of Turkey after World War I, promised them independence.
- Three years later Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk tore up the treaty. Kurdish revolts in the 1920s and 1930s were put down by Turkish forces and the armed Kurdish struggle in Turkey was quiescent until 1984. Ankara did not recognise the Kurds as a separate people and they suffered heavy restrictions on their language and culture.
Fight for a homeland
- The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) took up arms against Turkey in 1984 with the aim of creating an ethnic homeland in the mainly Kurdish south-east. Since then more than 30 000 people have been killed in the conflict.
- PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan was captured and tried in 1999. His death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in October 2002 after Turkey abolished the death penalty. Ocalan said he now favoured rights for Kurds by peaceful political means.
- Fighting dwindled after Ocalan’s capture and it also led to a ceasefire and the withdrawal of rebel fighters from Turkey.
- The Kurds fared no better in northern Iraq where, under a British mandate, revolts were put down in 1919, 1923 and 1932.
- Under leader Mustafa Barzani, the Iraqi Kurds waged an intermittent struggle against Baghdad after World War II. Kurdish northern Iraq finally won autonomy from Saddam Hussein with US help in 1991, and has benefited from more than a decade of economic development. While there has been some violence, it has not approached the levels seen in Baghdad.
The struggle continues
- Saddam’s fall deepened feelings for autonomy and in September 2006 the president of Iraq’s Kurdistan region ordered the Iraqi national flag be replaced with the Kurdish one in government buildings.
- Some 3 000 PKK fighters are based in northern Iraq and launch attacks on security and civilian targets in Turkish territory. A few thousand PKK rebels are also believed to be inside Turkey.
- Around 40 Turkish soldiers have been killed in fighting in the past month alone. Erdogan’s government is under heavy domestic pressure to pursue the PKK into northern Iraq. – Reuters