October 28, 2007
Britons join Kurdish rebels to fight Turks
BRITONS are among foreigners fighting Turkish troops with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq, The Sunday Times can reveal.
According to PKK fighters holed up in one of the natural fortresses of the Qandil mountain range which runs along Iraq’s Turkish and Iranian borders, several Europeans have joined forces with their group.
At least three Britons were in the PKK’s 3,000-strong force, boasted one fighter as he and a group of men huddled in a room discussing the latest clashes with the Turkish army. Others include Russians, Germans, Greeks, Iranians and Arabs. The PKK is labelled by both Europe and America as a terrorist organisation.
As diplomatic efforts to avert war falter, the PKK’s fighters now lie in wait for the mechanised Turkish divisions gathering menacingly along the border. Previous Turkish incursions have failed to deal a mortal blow to the PKK and geography again conspires against them.
The path to the PKK’s mountain redoubt winds along a cliffside track so bumpy that our Jeep crawls along at walking pace, its wheels inches from the edge of a precipice. The view of the jagged peaks is spectacular.
There is no sign of life except for the odd flock of sheep and a lone shepherd; the range looks peaceful and uninhabited. But hidden in its ravines and gorges are the PKK rebels.
Despite Turkey’s demand that the Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq clamp down on the PKK, there was no sign of any action against them.
On our way to the mountain, every checkpoint manned by the Iraqi army waved us through, and cheerfully provided directions on how to get to guerrilla positions.
Nor have the supply lines been cut. Several four-wheel-drive vehicles steered by toothless old men crawled along the tracks ahead of us, piled high with sackfuls of food.
The first sign of the PKK, after a three-hour drive from Irbil, was a sentry post guarded by three fighters with Kalashnikovs. They looked nervous and demanded our passports, mobile and satellite telephones, fearing that visitors could betray the coordinates of their outposts.
It is in these mountains that some of Turkey’s most wanted men live and hide, and where younger members of the group train and study. The 32-year-old commander of the post said he joined the PKK when he was 18 and had not seen his family for years.
“I’m a wanted man in Turkey, and if I set foot there I’ll be arrested and imprisoned for life. If anyone harbours me they’ll receive at least 15 years in jail,” he said, as we sipped tea under a makeshift gazebo. Nearby, a small satellite dish beamed the latest news to other fighters watching in the camouflaged stone house.
Turkey has massed up to 100,000 troops along the border and vowed to crush the PKK guerrillas, who have launched two major ambushes in the past month, killing at least 25 Turkish soldiers. Iraqi, Turkish and US diplomats have stepped up efforts to avert a large-scale Turkish incursion, fearing such an offensive would destabilise not only the most peaceful part of Iraq but potentially the entire region.
Oblivious to international concerns about the looming conflict, our PKK host laughed off the Turkish threat to root them out. They had tried before and failed, in 1995 and 1997, he pointed out. “Even Saddam Hussein failed,” he added.
The Qandil mountains are ideal guerrilla country, where fighters are familiar with every soaring peak, valley, ravine and cave, putting any attacker at a disadvantage. The Kurdish cells are scattered, reachable only by long treks on foot.
We headed for the next Kurdish cell two hours’ drive away, past the village of Kurteik. Eventually we reached a base where a PKK fighter who called himself Ishkanaz welcomed us with more cups of tea.
Angered by media coverage of their plight, the guerrillas insisted they were fighting a just cause. “How can they call us terrorists – we do not dispatch suicide bombers nor do we kill women and children,” Ishkanaz said. “Our attacks have concentrated on the Turkish forces, and we have treated the captured soldiers with respect.”
The eight Turkish soldiers captured last weekend in an ambush across the border would be kept until their demands were met, he said without elaborating.
Despite promises from Bagh-dad, the Iraqi government has no intention of complying with Turkish demands to expel the PKK. President Jalal Talabani of Iraq, himself a Kurd, said his forces could not find the rebel leaders because of the difficult terrain.
Iraq wants US troops stationed in the Kurdish region to deal with the guerrillas. However, when Major-General Benjamin Mixon, the top US commander in northern Iraq, was asked what steps he was planning to take against the PKK, he replied: “Absolutely nothing.”
Talks between Turkish and Iraqi leaders collapsed on Friday, making military action almost inevitable, although this is unlikely to begin in earnest until after Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, visits Washington early next month.
As Turkish warplanes circle overhead and the political storm rages about them, the PKK men in the mountains are settling in for a long struggle. “An independent Kurdistan must include territory liberated from Turkey, Iran and Syria,” our host says. “I shall not rest until I see this with my own eyes.”