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Kurds at the end of the road.

Battered by military setbacks and flagging foreign support, Turkey's Kurdish guerrillas have declared a truce with the government and offered to talk. The move announced by Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the PKK, has been met with misgivings among Kurdish militants and suspicion from Turkish hardliners. Nonetheless, writes Amberin Zaman from Ankara, it amounts to an admission that insurrection is not working and opens the way for a chance of peace at last.

HIGH IN THE KANDIL mountains where Iran meets northern Iraq, hundreds of guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) train daily for their nine-year-old war against Turkish security forces. "We shall continue fighting until there is a free Kurdistan," says 26-year-old Comrade Cicek, one of the 400 women guerrillas at the PKK's training camp in Zelleh. Her determination may now be flying in the face of reality.

Like many of the 1,400 PKK guerrillas at Zelleh, Cicek is visibly confused by the recent ceasefire declared by her party's leader, Abdullah Ocalan, familiarly known as Apo. "We must obey his orders," she says. "But if the Turkish government continues with treachery, our guns cannot remain silent for long."

In late March, Ocalan symbolically shed his guerrilla fatigues to appear in a smart double-breasted suit at a press conference in the Bekaa valley in Lebanon, where he renounced his claims for an independent Kurdish state and said it was time for a "political dialogue" with his Turkish "brothers". He would settle for a federal arrangement for the country's 12m Kurds, he said, with a "unified" and "democratic" Turkey. If the Turkish government were to take a number of concrete measures towards meeting the Kurds' demands, Ocalan hinted that the ceasefire might be extended indefinitely beyond its 15 April deadline.

Hopes of an indefinite extension ran high in Ankara, following the announcement by the interior minister, Ismet Sezgin, that the government would be studying ways to amend the constitution in order to lift the current bar on education and broadcasting in Kurdish. Sezgin also promised to annul a decree banning the use of Kurdish names for people and places.

While the prime minister, Suleiman Demirel, has ruled out face-to-face talks with Ocalan, it is widely believed that the government is in contact with the PKK leadership through third parties. Of these, Jalal Talabani, the leader of the Iraqi Kurdish Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the PUK, is credited with having orchestrated the ceasefire.

Throughout south-eastern Turkey, most ordinary Kurds expressed cautious hope mingled with relief following news of the ceasefire. "The people are tired of fighting, no one wants bloodshed. They just want their basic human rights, not an independent state," says Hashim Hashimi, the mayor of the small town of Cizre, notorious for its support for the PKK.

Last year, Cizre was the scene of some of the worst violence during celebrations of the Kurdish New Year, the Nowrouz. At least 90 civilians died in clashes with security forces, 45 in Cizre alone. With the exception of a few minor incidents, this year's celebrations took place peacefully. "The people were obeying Apo's orders," said a taxi driver in Cizre.

Ocalan's volte-face came as no surprise to many Turkish officials, who point to the recent political and military setbacks he has faced. At the end of last year, Turkish security forces launched a massive cross-border offensive against the PKK bases in northern Iraq. The Turkish government says at least 2,000 guerrillas were killed during the operation.

Iraqi Kurdish guerrillas joined forces with Turkey, on whom they rely for Western air cover and as their only supply route for incoming aid, in chasing the PKK from their strategic launching point for cross-border strikes against Turkish security forces. The surviving PKK guerrillas led by Apo's brother, Osman, remain confined in Zelleh under the watchful eyes of the Iraqi Kurds.

The PKK's defeat has considerably diminished its stature in the eyes of many Kurds, who according to Hashimi "always tend to side with the strong. Clearly the stronger side is now the state."

At the same time, the guerrillas' often ruthless attacks on Kurdish civilians (including women and children accused of collaborating with the state) have drawn sharp criticism both at home and abroad. The PKK's espousal of Marxist-Leninist ideology is increasingly viewed as an anachronism by many ordinary Kurds.

Meanwhile, in a bid to improve ties with Ankara, the PKK's erstwhile mentor, Syria, has distanced itself from the guerrillas, shutting down its bases in the Bekaa valley. Iran also appears noticeably less keen than hitherto to foment the crisis.

More important, the United States and the major European powers have all denounced the PKK as a "terrorist" group. According to sources close to the PKK, many of the left-wing European parties which traditionally supported the Kurds have made it clear that they can only continue to do so if they pursue their struggle on a political basis.

Western support for Ankara seems to be largely motivated by secular Turkey's role as a bulwark against the fundamentalist regime in Iran, whose shopping spree in the arms market is causing growing alarm among the Gulf Arabs. Qualms about Turkey's human rights record have been discreetly overcome.

In a statement issued two days before the ceasefire announcement, the US State Department said: "We support the Turkish government in its struggle against separatism and terrorist violence." But in a gentle warning to Ankara, it added, "as in the past, we note that the solution to this problem will not be found simply through military means, but must include political accommodation within Turkey's constitutional system and the protection of human rights". It is therefore no coincidence, say Western diplomats, that Demirel recently said that it was no longer thought "necessary" to carry out a planned spring offensive against the guerrillas.

But in Zelleh, Osman Ocalan and his guerrillas continued to talk tough. "The enemy |Turkey~ may take a few impish steps. If we don't have the right to self-determination, being allowed to sing in Kurdish means little to us. If Turkey doesn't respond to our calls, we shall resume the war in a way that will make the earth and heaven shake."

While such talk sounds bombastic, Turkish officials privately conceded that the PKK still poses a military threat. According to Osman, the PKK's main fighting force made up of some 7,000 guerrillas based in three separate camps in southeast Turkey is ready to strike at any moment. "We can mobilise at least double that number of armed civilians," he claims.

Just how far Demirel can go in meeting the Kurd's demands without appearing to be making concessions to the PKK is the kind of political arithmetic that is wracking official brains in the capital. Hopes among most Turks and Kurds exhausted by a war that has claimed 6,000 lives is that they will come up with a formula that will enable peace to prevail.

There are hardliners on both sides. Many PKK militants who have borne the brunt of the fighting will feel betrayed by a compromise negotiated on their behalf by the political leadership. Like the intifada in Israel's Occupied Territories, disaffected and idealistic youngsters may be better prepared to carry on a struggle of which their elders have begun to weary.

For their part, the Turkish armed forces feel closer than ever to achieving a military victory. Over the past year, they have markedly improved their counter-insurgency tactics and the delivery of American-made Black Hawk helicopters has provided a new fast-reaction capability.

Many of Turkey's officers have spent the better part of their professional lives fighting Kurdish insurgents. Now that they see their opponents' resolve apparently weakening, it will be hard to dissuade them from trying to administer the coup de grace. This, however, would only play into the hands of the PKK's diehards.

Demirel is in a difficult position. Ocalan has presented him with an unprecedented opportunity to bring the Kurdish insurrection to an end, but it will be hard to forge a consensus within the ruling coalition. By and large, the press and public opinion seems to be in favour of his grasping the chance for peace. The prime minister himself has started talking about his commitment to Turkey's "cultural mosaic". That, however, can only be a beginning.

It is now Demirel's job to come up with a coherent response to the PKK's offer of an olive branch. He will have to overcome the opposition of conservative nationalists in the government and military hawks who have used the excuse of unrest and Kurdish terrorism as a way to avoid seeking a political solution. In the end, tackling the hardliners in Ankara may be less unpleasant than provoking a renewal of the Kurdish insurrection.
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Title Annotation:Turkey's Kurdish guerrillas offer truce to government
Author:Zaman, Amberin
Publication:The Middle East
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:May 1, 1993
Previous Article:Into an ideological void.
Next Article:Turkey claims the oil route.

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