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Kidnappings Are Driving Turkish Truckers Away

Growing violence has set back the lucrative trade between Ankara and Baghdad as fewer drivers are willing to make the risky run.

September 30, 2004|Tracy Wilkinson and Amberin Zaman | Special to The Times

ANKARA, Turkey — For 23 years, Turkish businessman Mehmet Emin Deger has been running a fleet of trucks to neighboring Iraq, ferrying motor oil, gasoline, food and tons of supplies to Iraqis and, more recently, to U.S. troops deployed in the troubled country.

But kidnappings, killings, highway robberies and other chaos have forced Deger to cut his shipments by 70%. In the last two months, he has lost three trucks to armed gangs and had to ransom two other rigs. One of his drivers was killed; another was beaten, thrown into a river and left for dead; and a third -- his cousin -- was abducted, fate unknown.

This week, Deger received word from his company's representative in the northern Iraq city of Mosul that leaflets were circulating warning foreign truckers that they would be slain if caught.

Although it was unclear who issued the warning, Deger was taking the threat seriously.

"Up to this point we have resisted the pressures and remain determined to keep up trade with Iraq," Deger said in an interview at his headquarters here in Ankara, the Turkish capital. "If the security situation continues to be life-threatening, then, of course, we cannot continue."

Building on years of commercial ties and taking advantage of the shared border, Turkish companies led the pack of non-American businesses eager to make money in Iraq. Large companies like Deger's can get millions of dollars worth of business; by some estimates, Turkish companies transport $2 billion in consumer goods into Iraq a year.

But the inability of U.S. or Iraqi forces to tame a raging insurgency or to crack down on criminal gangs, many of them in cahoots with local officials, has left a security vacuum marked by danger and death.

Statistics are not altogether clear, because some abductions go unreported, but more Turks have been kidnapped than just about any other nationality. The government has estimated that about 30 Turks, most of them truck drivers, have been seized; the nation's truckers association says 15 of its members have been killed, not including a man who was transporting prefabricated construction materials when shot dead Tuesday near Mosul.

Ten Turks were taken hostage this month by an Islamic group led by Jordanian militant Abu Musab Zarqawi. The group threatened to kill the men unless their company, Vinsan, halted operations in Iraq. The chief executive of the firm, which was building and repairing roads in Iraq, offered to freeze operations in a bid to free the employees, most of whom were truck drivers. The hostages have not been heard from since Sept. 18, when the Arabic-language news channel Al Jazeera aired a videotape of what it said were the men.

"There is no security left in Iraq," said Abuzer Yavuz, who runs a trucking company in the southern Turkish port city of Mersin. He said he ceased his $10-million-a-year business with Iraq two weeks ago because of the dangers.

"Fewer and fewer drivers want to make the run," Yavuz said. "I have been doing business with Iraq for over 20 years, and things have never been this bad."

Turkish leaders have pleaded with U.S. government and military officials for better protection for their nationals working in Iraq. At a meeting last week in New York, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul again raised the issue with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.

Security for the drivers has become entangled in the jumble of U.S.-Turkish politics and strained relations. Many Turks believe that Washington has not forgiven their country for refusing to allow the U.S. to launch part of the invasion of Iraq last year from their soil. Turkish officials say that when they ask for help today, they are told that the Americans have their hands full with more pressing problems in Iraq.

Although American personnel are stretched to the limit, the U.S. is providing armed escorts to about 60% of Turkish truck convoys, American officials say. But the escorts have failed to stop attacks, Turkish truckers say.

Cahit Soysal, chairman of the executive committee of the Istanbul-based International Truckers Assn., said the U.S. Army typically would provide only two escort vehicles for a 100-truck convoy that could easily stretch more than half a mile.

About a third of the association's 1,100 members travel into Iraq, and about 10% of them transport fuel and other goods directly to U.S. military bases, Soysal said.

The convoys cannot count on having an escort for their trip out of Iraq, however, and that is often when they are attacked, Soysal said.

"The situation is getting worse every day," he said. The association has called on its members to refuse to truck supplies into Iraq until security improves.

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