News / Europe

Killing of Kurdish Activists Comes as Peace Talks Ramp Up

A man reacts next to portrait of Sakine Cansizt inside the Kurdish cultural center in Paris, France, January 10, 2013.
A man reacts next to portrait of Sakine Cansizt inside the Kurdish cultural center in Paris, France, January 10, 2013.
The execution-style killings of three female Kurdish activists in Paris early Thursday comes just days after Turkish media reported significant progress in talks between a jailed rebel leader and senior Turkish intelligence officials.

News reports identified one of the women as Sakine Cansiz, a founding member of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which has waged an armed campaign for self-rule against the Turkish state since 1984.  The conflict has claimed 40,000 lives.

Another victim in Paris was Fidan Dogan, a representative in France of the Brussels-based Kurdistan National Committee, a lobbying group. The third woman was Leyla Soylemez, a young Kurdish activist.

Turkish officials said the murders could be aimed at derailing new peace talks seeking to end the decades-old conflict with PKK rebels.

  • The body of one of three Kurdish women is taken out of the building where they were killed, Paris, France, January 10, 2013.
  • Portraits of presumed victims are seen pinned on a member of the Kurdish community's coat as they gather next to the entrance of the Information Centre of Kurdistan in Paris, France, January 10, 2013.
  • Kurdish people react as three bodies of the killed Kurdish women are taken out of a building in Paris, France, January 10, 2013.
  • Kurdish people gather in front of the building where three Kurdish women were killed in Paris, France, January 10, 2013.
  • Kurdish activists gather outside a building where three Kurdish women were shot dead, in Paris, France, January 10, 2013.

Ongoing talks

Early last week, officials close to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that senior intelligence officials had been meeting with imprisoned PKK chief Abdullah Öcalan at his island jail near Istanbul.

In the last few days, Turkish media began reporting on the emergence of a four-stage plan to halt the conflict. One part of the possible deal could involve releasing thousands of people accused of PKK links held in prison.  Neither side has confirmed the reports.

A previous round of negotiations with the PKK in Oslo was highly secretive and appeared to have faltered.

In recent months, Turkey's conflict with the rebel group has escalated. Since large-scale hostilities resumed in summer 2011, more than 800 people have died, the highest casualty rate since the late 1990s, according to reports.

The Turkish army has staged more than 1,000 raids in the past eight months against the PKK, branded by the United States and the European Union as a terrorist organization.

When Turkey captured PKK leader Öcalan in 1999 and cut most of the group's links to states offering support or safe-haven, the PKK countered by founding sister organizations, such as the PYD in Syria and PJAK in Iran, beginning in 2002.

Despite denials, the splinter groups are all PKK-run, said Ihsan Bal, an Ankara-based security specialist.

"[In] the case of PJAK, Iranian Kurds are involved, and, obviously, with the PYD in Syria, the Syrian Kurds are involved, but the main instigator and [effective] leadership is the PKK," he said.

European and American officials say the groups are loosely funded through the PKK's network of voluntary contributions from sympathizers in Turkey and the European Kurdish diaspora, as well as extortion, drug trafficking and kidnapping.

The PKK reportedly raises up to $25 million annually from the diaspora, but its main funding comes from within Turkey itself. The money is used for everything from armed operations to TV stations and European lobbying efforts.

Turkish demands

Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan has demanded international action to curb the money trail from Europe.

"We would like to see the outcome of the European Union’s determined policies," Erdogan said last year. "So there should not be any ‘western-sponsored,’ separatist terror organization. The West should clearly lay out its position in this case. It is our expectation."

Founded in 1978, the PKK originally vowed to secure an independent, united Kurdistan for the Middle East's estimated 30 million Kurds, a goal that has been scaled back to autonomy within Turkey.

In the late 1980s, the PKK established bases in Iraq. According to analyst Bal, the group now controls about 4,000 guerrilla fighters based in that country's nearly impenetrable northern mountains near the Turkish border and another 1,000 inside Turkey.

Neither Turkey nor the Kurdistan regional government in Iraq has been able to shut down the PKK's main bases in Qandil in northern Iraq, "where they will operate for a long time," said Denise Natali, a Kurdish expert at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C.

The commander of the PKK's armed wing, Murat Karayilan, was quoted as saying the group's military budget amounts to more than $140 million annually.

"[Outside experts] have estimated it might be [as much as] $150 million. So that is the estimate of the PKK military wing," said analyst Bal.

But, ultimately, the Kurdish insurgency may become more of a detriment that an asset for the Kurdish cause.

"There's no question the PKK put the Kurds on the map in Turkey," said Henri Barkey, a professor of international relations at Lehigh University. "But from this point on, they will not get a great deal more from continued violence."

Mark Snowiss

Mark Snowiss is a Washington D.C.-based multimedia reporter.  He has written and edited for various media outlets including Pacifica and NPR affiliates in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @msnowiss and on Google Plus

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