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Last updated: June 19, 2012 5:45 pm
Eight Turkish soldiers were killed in an attack by the Kurdistan Workers’ party, or PKK, on Tuesday in what many commentators saw as an attempt to forestall a negotiated settlement to the long-running conflict in Turkey’s southeast.
The attack was the bloodiest so far this year in a conflict that has claimed more than 30,000 lives over the past three decades.
The PKK, listed by Ankara, Washington and Brussels as a terrorist organisation, carried out a co-ordinated operation with rocket launchers and rifles on military outposts in Hakkari province, near the border with Iraq. The Turkish army said the militants had crossed the border to stage the assaults.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, who is at the summit of the G20 group of nations in Mexico, responded to the clashes by redoubling his call for the PKK to give up its arms. Unusually, a similar call was issued by Selahattin Demirtas, the leader of the country’s main Kurdish party, whose members are sometimes alleged to have links to the PKK.
“The PKK should stop all kind of armed activity and the government should also stop [military] operations,” he said.
The attack followed a series of potentially conciliatory moves, including a declaration last week by Mr Erdogan that children in state schools could soon take optional courses in Kurdish, once dismissed by Ankara as “mountain Turk” rather than a language in its own right.
Language rights and demands for greater autonomy are at the heart of the Kurdish dispute.
Cengiz Candar, a leading Turkish columnist, said the PKK attack bore the signs of a spoiler operation, mounted by elements within the organisation opposed to a settlement.
“There have been initial, incremental steps,” he said. “This latest act is apparently intended to deter such moves, to infect the climate against any attempt for a negotiated resolution of the issue.”
Mr Candar noted that over the past week, Leyla Zana, a prominent Kurdish member of parliament, had expressed her faith in Mr Erdogan’s ability to solve the Kurdish dispute and the prime minister had said he was willing to meet her.
This follows months in which the government insisted that it was unwilling to negotiate with the PKK, unless it laid down its arms, or with Abdullah Ocalan, the organisation’s former leader, who is imprisoned in an island fortress near Istanbul.
An audio tape of an earlier round of secret talks between the government and the PKK was leaked to the internet last year, in what some government supporters said was a deliberate move by PKK members to make talks more difficult.
In a sign that elements of the state also resist any attempt to reach a settlement, a Turkish prosecutor this year demanded that Hakan Fidan, the prime ministerial confidant who led the government side of the talks and who is now the country’s spy chief, give evidence as a suspect in a terrorist criminal case.
At Mr Erdogan’s initiative, the prosecutor’s attempt was frustrated by the rushed passage of a law protecting Mr Fidan from such demands.
Tuesday’s attack was only the latest mounted while Mr Erdogan was out of the country, in a sequence going back years. It follows prison riots in the southeast, including one at the weekend when 13 people died in a fire.
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