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Turkish Kurds stuck in middle

People near the border with Iraq are on edge as their government poises to attack the rebels many identify with.

October 24, 2007|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

YUKSEKOVA, TURKEY — In a town where the pictures of dead Kurdish guerrillas adorn certain walls as tributes to their martyrdom, warnings of war along the Turkish-Iraqi border are achingly familiar.

Turkey's threat to invade northern Iraq has left people in this predominantly Kurdish region nervous and suspicious, recalling the bad years of the mid-1990s, the period of the largest Turkish incursions and heavy-handed counterinsurgency campaigns. Fighting was heavy, death tolls high, and entire villages cleared out to destroy rebel support networks.

No one was predicting Tuesday that Turkey was about to return to that level of authority. But quite a few people said it would be a bad idea.

"Everyone in Turkey would suffer," Yuksekova Mayor Mehmet Salih Yildiz said in an interview at the headquarters of his Kurdish political party, which this year has representatives in the Turkish national parliament for the first time.

"We have been living with big pressure for years and are very used to the situation, but Turkey is not," he said.

Two of Yildiz's sons were killed as fighters for the Kurdish rebel force known as the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, and a daughter remains "in the mountains" with PKK units taking shelter across the border in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Yuksekova on Tuesday did not have the look of a town bracing for war. Life carried on more or less routinely. Schoolboys played basketball, shoppers picked over well-stocked vegetable bins.

The region around Yuksekova, a land of sparse, ragged mountains and vast, big-sky plateaus, has long been heavily militarized and remained so Tuesday. Dozens of helicopter missions had flown overnight, residents said, and more than the usual number of checkpoints were manned by soldiers or military police, with sandbags and video cameras.

On the road that leads south from Yuksekova to the Iraqi border, an army outpost about 20 miles from the border stopped all traffic and barred journalists from traveling farther.

It was on this road that PKK rebels blew up a bridge Sunday and ambushed a Turkish army patrol, killing 12 soldiers and wounding 16 others. Eight remain unaccounted for; the PKK says it captured them, and on Tuesday a pro-Kurdish news agency released photographs purporting to show some of the men.

"That's the war zone," one of the officers at the checkpoint said, signaling an unseen point to the south over the mountains.

In the same area Sunday, a wedding convoy was blown up by what Turkish authorities said was a PKK land mine, and a tractor driver narrowly avoided injury when another mine exploded Monday, the officer said.

As he spoke, a patrol returned to the base toting land mine detection equipment.

About 100 yards away, herds of cattle and sheep were slouching through a field and over the army's helicopter landing pads. A soldier bounded down the hill to try to shoo the animals away.

At a checkpoint farther north, military police ordered journalists out of their car and sought information about their hour-by-hour movements, whom they had interviewed and what the interviewees said.

The army in this region supplements its numbers with hundreds of so-called village guards, Kurds who are armed and paid by Turkey to patrol villages or rural territory. Many were displaced from their villages by Turkey more than a decade ago, but they nonetheless fight alongside government troops.

Four village guards were squatting in a pasture near Yuksekova, smoking cigarettes and settling in for a cold night. They said the increase in PKK attacks, some of the deadliest in years, and the alleged PKK targeting of civilians made them worry about a return to all-out warfare.

But invading northern Iraq was not the answer, they said, because it would spill a lot of blood but not finish off the PKK.

"It's starting to look like the '90s again, and it could get a lot worse," said one of the guards, who did not want to be identified because they are not allowed to speak to the media. "Many, many people could die. And it's not so easy. The PKK is not just in northern Iraq. They're here, they're in Istanbul, in Europe. . . ."

Back in Yuksekova, a number of Kurds said they were worried that the escalating crisis would erode recent gains in social and political fields. Under pressure from a European Union that Turkey hopes to join, the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has allowed limited television broadcasts in the Kurdish language and some teaching in Kurdish, and dozens of Kurds now sit in parliament.

"Where there is war there is no development, no progress," said Mehmet Yardimci, 47, a member of the mayor's political party. "It does not benefit anybody."

The party headquarters was decorated with yellow mini-banners strung across the ceiling like streamers. On the wall were photographs of six youthful-looking PKK militants from Yuksekova who were killed in the last year; a poster saluted them as martyrs.

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