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The Turkish Republic, Kurdish Conflict

Ocalan, Turkish military units, Treaty of Sevres, added troops, Turkish Kurds

The Kurds, a seminomadic people who have inhabited a region including parts of present-day Iran, Iraq, and Turkey since the 2400s bc, were promised an independent state as part of the 1920 Treaty of Sevres between Turkey and the World War I Allies. That part of the treaty was never ratified, however. For several decades, the Turkish government discouraged Kurdish nationalism and culture, leading to a wave of uprisings. In 1984 separatist forces among the Turkish Kurds began intensive raids in southeastern Turkey against the Turkish government. These forces were led by the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a Marxist group considered a terrorist organization by the Turkish government.

After Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Turkey supported the international effort to oust Iraq from Kuwait, although no Turkish troops fought in the ensuing Persian Gulf War (1991). After the war, in the wake of an unsuccessful uprising by Iraqi Kurds, hundreds of thousands of Kurdish refugees crossed the border into Turkey. Many were kept near the border under the watch of troops from countries that defeated Iraq in the war. In 1992 fighting escalated between Turkey and the PKK. In the mid-1990s, as Kurdish forces continued their attacks on locations such as coastal resorts and points in central Istanbul, the government responded with added troops and air attacks on suspected Kurdish strongholds. Meanwhile, thousands of Turkish Kurds sought refuge in the border region of northern Iraq, which had come under the control of the two main Iraqi Kurdish groups and was being monitored by the allied forces that fought in the Persian Gulf War.

In 1995, 35,000 Turkish troops moved across the border into northern Iraq in an effort to prevent PKK rebels from mounting cross-border raids into Turkey. The troops took control of the 290-km (180-mi) border and moved about 40 km (about 20 mi) inside Iraq to surround several Turkish Kurdish guerrilla strongholds in the region. Turkish officials claimed they would only withdraw from the region upon the creation of a security border zone. However, Turkey withdrew its troops six weeks later. Turkey made periodic cross-border raids in the years that followed.

In February 1999 Turkish military units, assisted by U.S. intelligence agencies, captured PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in Nairobi, Kenya. Ocalan was imprisoned on a Turkish island and was tried on charges of treason. In June 1999 he was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. In the months following the arrest, terrorist bombings believed to have been conducted by the PKK in retaliation for Ocalan’s capture occurred in several Turkish cities. By mid-1999 the conflict between the PKK and the Turkish government had left at least 30,000 people dead or homeless.

At the start of his trial, Ocalan expressed regret for all the bloodshed and called for peaceful negotiations between the Turkish government and the PKK. In August 1999 he called for a cease-fire. Six months later, in February 2000, the PKK announced that it was ending its armed struggle against the Turkish government. The organization said it would reconstitute itself as a political party and would use democratic means to improve conditions for Turkey’s Kurdish minority.



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