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PKK's Violent Struggle for Kurdish Independence Approaches 24 Years


Tensions continue along the Turkish-Iraqi border as Turkish security forces pursue rebels from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) who have used safe havens in northern Iraq to launch attacks inside Turkey. VOA's Margaret Besheer has more on the rise of the group considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and Europe.

In 1978, a group of young left-wing Kurds, led by Abdullah Ocalan, founded the PKK. They were seeking to raise the issue of Kurdish rights in Turkey, where millions of ethnic Kurds live. For decades, Turkish Kurds were denied many political and cultural rights, including the right to speak their own language.

Convinced that armed struggle was the only way to achieve its goal of independence, the PKK turned to violence in 1984. Edmund Ghareeb is a professor of Kurdish studies at the American University in Washington, DC and the author of The Historical Dictionary of Iraq.

"At that time they were looking for independence, not only independence of Turkish Kurdistan, but of all Kurdish areas in the neighboring states," he noted. "This was a pan-Kurdish movement. That is what they tried to achieve. Ultimately, they were able to increase and escalate their activities, leading to fierce clashes with Turkish state security forces, and to a great deal of violence."

As many as 40,000 people, most of them Kurds, have been killed since the conflict began in 1984.

The PKK won respect from Kurds because it dared to fight Turkey. The group was well organized and well financed, and counted Kurdish women among its fighters. Aliza Marcus, author of Blood and Belief, a book about the PKK, says the organization also put down roots in civil society during the 1990s, which helped to expand its influence among Kurds.

"It was more than just a rebel force. It had a newspaper, it had links to a political party inside Turkey, it had cultural clubs, it has a dance troupe, it has music groups, publishing houses, all this has helped the PKK maintain a foothold, has given it a certain respect, has given it influence, more importantly influence inside Turkey, to the extent that no other Kurdish group can actually challenge it," she explained.

But in the late 1990s, the Turkish government scored some successes in undermining the PKK.

Ankara pressed neighboring Syria to expel Abdullah Ocalan who had sought safe haven there. After searching for asylum in several other countries, the PKK leader was abducted by Turkish special forces in Kenya and returned to Ankara. In 1999, he stood trial and was sentenced to death for treason. But because of Turkish aspirations to join the European Union, where the death penalty has been banned, his sentence was commuted to life. Today, he sits in a prison on a Turkish island.

After Ocalan's arrest, the PKK called a five-year unilateral cease-fire and began to shift its demands away from an independent Kurdish state to self-rule within Turkey.

In 2003, the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq presented the PKK with a new situation and new opportunities for pressing its cause.

The group resumed its violent campaign inside Turkey in 2004, with some fighters operating from across the border in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq. Tensions have steadily escalated. Two PKK attacks last month that killed 13 Turkish soldiers and 12 civilians outraged Ankara and the Turkish public.

Iraqi Kurds and the Baghdad government have called for a political solution to the problem, pointing out that past Turkish military operations have failed to resolve the conflict. The Bush administration, which considers the PKK a terrorist group, is concerned about the Turkish military buildup along the border. It says it is seeking a long-term solution to the problem, but has refused Ankara's demands that American troops pursue the PKK in northern Iraq.

Frustrated, Ankara has stepped up military operations against the PKK in southeastern Turkey, and the parliament has authorized cross-border raids into northern Iraq. Turkey's prime minister recently said the struggle against the PKK would continue until the PKK threat is eliminated.