In the early hours of October 7, Turkish warplanes struck at suspected positions of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in northern Iraq for the third day in row as Turkey continued to reel from the October 3 PKK attack on a military outpost in the village of Aktutun on the country’s border with Iraq (see EDM, October 6).
On the evening of October 6, the Turkish General Staff (TGS) released a statement confirming that the bodies of two soldiers who had been reported missing in the attack had been found (Press Statement No. BA – 46 / 08 of October 6, TGS website, www.tsk.mil.tr). The discovery took the official death toll to 17 members of the Turkish military, the highest number of Turkish soldiers killed in a single incident since the PKK returned to violence in June 2004.
On October 6 construction machinery began to demolish the remains of the military base in Aktutun, as part of decision by the TGS to relocate five vulnerable military outposts in southeastern Turkey to more easily defendable positions (see EDM, October 6). For the fiercely proud Turkish military, it is a major public embarrassment having to acknowledge that it is unable to defend its troops against an organization that it has repeatedly declared on the point of collapse. The damage to the military’s public prestige has been compounded by the publication in the Turkish press of more details of the attack on Aktutun. Several newspapers have quoted unnamed intelligence sources as saying that the PKK used about 25 mules to haul their heavy weapons into position on the mountains overlooking Aktutun and that around 350 militants participated in the subsequent firefight, which, despite the Turkish military’s calling in air support, lasted nine and a half hours (Hurriyet, Vatan, October 7). Even some of the mainstream newspapers, which are unusually extremely reluctant to question the TGS’s prowess, have bluntly accused the military of incompetence (Radikal, October 5).
Fears that the Turkish authorities are failing to defeat the PKK have been further fueled by photographs of the inhabitants of Aktutun carrying their belongings on their backs as they abandon the village to seek refuge with relatives in a nearby town. During the PKK’s first insurgency from 1984 to 1999, more than 3,500 villages in southeastern Turkey were abandoned. Most of their inhabitants were driven from their homes by the Turkish military as part of scorched earth policy to deny the PKK access to food and shelter. In recent years, the Turkish government has been attempting, usually unsuccessfully, to persuade people to return. As a result, even if it is a single village of 75 houses, the abandonment of Aktutun has a symbolic resonance out of all proportion to the event itself. “The year is 2008 and terrorism is emptying a village,” declared the liberal daily Radikal beside a picture of a family abandoning Aktutun (Radikal, October 7).
On the same day as the inhabitants of Aktutun abandoned their village, Justice Minister Mehmet Ali Sahin announced that the TGS and the Gendarmerie had asked the government for an increase in their legal powers and the re-imposition of restrictions on the rights of detainees. The measures included: the right for the Gendarmerie to pursue suspects into areas that fall under the jurisdiction of the Turkish National Police (TNP); an increase in the length of time detainees can be held without charge from the current limit of four days; allowing military units to stage operations, interrogate, and conduct searches without having to seek permission from the local governor or public prosecutor; and the removal of a suspect’s right to have a lawyer present during interrogation. Sahin said that the government had acceded to two of the requests and was still considering the others, although he provided no further details (Milliyet, Radikal, Hurriyet, Today’s Zaman, NTV, CNNTurk, October 7).
In a country always rife with conspiracy theories, it was perhaps inevitable that in the wake of the attack on Aktutun, many Turks would attempt to shift responsibility for the deaths of the Turkish soldiers onto foreign countries. Several newspaper columnists accused the United States, which has been supplying Turkey with intelligence on PKK movements in northern Iraq since November 2007, of either being incompetent or of deliberately withholding information on the buildup of PKK forces in the valleys and ravines on the Iraqi side of the border prior to the attack (Hurriyet, Milliyet, October 4-5). On October 4 retired General Edip Baser expressed the feelings of many Turks when he told the NTV news channel that the ultimate responsibility for the deaths of the Turkish soldiers lay with the European countries, which he claimed were supporting and financing the PKK (NTV, October 4).
More worrying than the accusations of foreign involvement have been the signs that an increasing number of people in Turkey are prepared to blame the country’s Kurdish community as a whole for the actions of the PKK. During the PKK’s first insurgency, which was frequently marred by atrocities on both sides, Turkish society as a whole remained remarkably free from ethnic tension between Turks and Kurds. In recent years, however, there have been a number of incidents that suggest that the Turkish authorities can no longer take such harmony for granted. On September 30 the death of two ethnic Turks apparently at the hands of a Kurdish youth triggered several days of anti-Kurdish riots in the Aegean town of Altinova (see EDM, October 2). On October 5 an 18 year-old youth in the eastern Mediterranean town of Adana was stabbed to death when he tried to prevent three people from stealing a moped he had borrowed from his cousin. When they learned that the suspects were ethnic Kurds, around 1,000 people took to the streets, waving Turkish flags and chanting anti-PKK slogans (Dogan Haber Ajansi, October 6).