With the unprecedented surrender of eight Kurdish rebels, Turkey may have a new chance to end a 15-year insurgency that has cost more than 30,000 lives, Kurdish politicians and activists say. But the government's response so far has been to jail the group, press fresh charges against their imprisoned leader and mount a cross-border operation against their comrades in northern Iraq.
The Turkish military, whose views are decisive on the Kurdish issue, has long regarded the secessionist Kurds as terrorists and refuses to deal with them. In addition, Turkish officers have said recently that the outlawed Kurdish Workers' Party--the main rebel group, known as the PKK--has lost much of its strength and is largely on the run.
The eight Kurdish rebels surrendered last Friday on the Iraqi border in response to a request by their leader, Abdullah Ocalan. Ocalan, who is on a prison island south of Istanbul awaiting the outcome of an appeal of his death sentence, termed the surrender "a goodwill gesture" aimed at proving he is sincere about his repeated offers to end the insurgency.
"Depending on the handling by the state of this group, the rest of the PKK fighters in the mountains may surrender as well," said Irfan Dundar, one of Ocalan's lawyers. But he added: "There has to be a full pardon" for all PKK members.
Instead, the eight--led by the PKK's former European spokesman, Ali Sapan--were imprisoned in a remote province, officials said Tuesday.
The military, in a statement issued Sept. 27--the same day it launched a new offensive against Kurdish rebels in Iraq, and four days before the Kurds turned themselves in--dismissed the surrender idea as a ploy. "The terrorist organization has always used such tactics to gain time and then redouble their attacks," the statement said. "For this reason, the Turkish Armed Forces are determined to pursue the battle until the last terrorist is neutralized."
According to army officials, recent rebel setbacks--including their expulsion a year ago from bases in Syria and the arrest in Kenya in February of their enigmatic leader--have reduced their strength in Turkey from 10,000 combatants at the peak of the insurgency in 1992 to about 1,000. The PKK's methods, which included killing the families of thousands of Kurds fighting for the state, have likewise weakened its popular support, the officials said.
The rebels have made a series of overtures since a court sentenced Ocalan to death by hanging on treason charges in June. They include pledges to abide by Ocalan's order to end their insurgency, to withdraw from Turkish territory and to transform themselves into a peaceful political movement.
During his month-long trial on Imrali island, Ocalan described the uprising as "a mistake" and renounced his demands for Kurdish independence--and even autonomy--saying that easing government bans on broadcasting and education in the Kurdish language and granting a full amnesty for his guerrillas would satisfy his people's demands.
But Turkish leaders do not seem ready to seize what even some establishment commentators have described as the best opportunity in years to address demands by Turkey's 12 million Kurds for greater cultural and political rights. That was underlined by the new charge against Ocalan--forming a gang to commit violence--which also carries the death penalty.
"Among people in high places, there seem to be two conflicting views on whether radio-TV programs and education in Kurdish should be legalized," wrote Hasan Cemal, a leading columnist for the pro-government, pro-military daily Milliyet. "Some believe it would be better to ensure these within the framework of individual democratic rights. Some others believe . . . if we took such steps we would be preparing with our own hands the infrastructure that would lead to the division of Turkey. I am on the side of the first group."
Over the past few months, authorities have cracked down on Kurdish language broadcasts that were aired with Turkey's tacit permission in the largely Kurdish southeastern provinces. According to the pro-Kurdish daily Ozgur Bakis, the local governor's office has banned about 220 Kurdish music cassettes, including some recordings of folk songs commonly played at Kurdish weddings.
The hard-line approach has dampened hopes that the country's powerful generals, buoyed by success on the battlefield, were beginning to mellow on Kurdish rights--hopes triggered by unprecedented remarks last month by the consistently taciturn army chief, Gen. Huseyin Kivrikoglu. During a briefing for Turkish journalists, Kivrikoglu hinted that the military would not press for Ocalan's execution, which must be approved by parliament and the president.
Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit has repeatedly stated his aversion to the death sentence, which is widely expected to be upheld by an appeals court. But when queried on the PKK overtures, Ecevit has spoken of "a wait-and-see approach" and echoed the military's view that all rebels should surrender unconditionally and take advantage of a recently passed law that pardons rebels who have not been involved in violence.