From The Times
War will spread to Turkish cities if his Iraq bases are attacked, PKK chief tells The Times
Deborah Haynes in the Qandil Mountains
Sipping milky coffee from a glass mug as he sat crosslegged on a cushion, the Kurdish rebel commander cut more of a kindly father figure than that of a fighter preparing to defend his cause to the death against Turkey.
The friendly smile and calm exterior, however, hide a steely determination to protect and promote Kurdish rights in the region, helped by several thousand men and women who inhabit the remote mountains of northern Iraq.
Murat Karayilan, the leader of the armed wing of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), gave warning that a major attack by Turkish forces to crush his rebels would end in defeat because all Kurds in Iraq and Turkey would unite against them.
He insisted, however, that he still hoped to resolve the crisis peacefully. The answer was for Ankara to agree to establish a semi-autonomous state, like Scotland, for the Kurds in southeast Turkey.
“If the Turkish Army attacks Iraqi Kurdistan we will struggle and resist against this until the end,” Mr Karayilan told The Timesat a secret meeting point in the Qandil Mountains that straddle Iraq’s border with Turkey.
“The war will not only happen in Iraqi Kurdistan but also Turkish Kurdistan and the cities of Turkey. That is why we hope that the Turkish generals and politicians will not follow such a crazy idea,” he said, speaking in Turkish through a translator.
His comments came as the Turkish Parliament voted to allow its troops to deploy inside Iraq in pursuit of Kurdish fighters who are blamed for a series of deadly attacks in Turkey.
Mr Karayilan said that the Turkish authorities were using the PKK as an excuse to attack all Kurdish people in northern Iraq, where they are enjoy semi-autonomy and relative stability, as well as in southern Turkey.
Ankara also wanted to send a message of defiance to Washington, which has called for restraint in response to the possible US adoption of a resolution on Armenian genocide, he said.
“The soldiers will go inside Iraq, but to where?” asked Mr Karayilan. “To us this means that maybe Turkey has some military targets in northern Iraq. However, mostly it has political aims.”
He said he was not worried that Iraq and the Kurdish regional government would also try to oust his fighters.
“We are in Kurdistan, amid the Kurdish people, in the Kurdish mountains. We are living free and we don’t care what anybody else says.”
Mr Karayilan was speaking from a simple, one-storey stone house surrounded by fig trees, where The Timeswas escorted to meet him by an armed PKK guard after driving up a narrow, winding mountain road.
The PKK, which has been branded a terrorist organisation by the European Union, the United States and Turkey, has reason to keep its whereabouts secret, particularly as it prepares to face about 60,000 Turkish troops massing along the border.
Mr Karayilan said that he had between 7,000 and 8,000 fighters, backed by a support base of volunteers and sympathisers of about 20,000, and that morale among them was high.
“I am not afraid,” said one young woman, with a Kalashnikov slung over her right shoulder. She was dressed in the PKK uniform of dull, baggy trousers, a matching shirt, tied at the waist by a scarf, and an overjacket.
Many of the fighters also have grenades strapped to a belt over their waistband.
Equality between men and women is one of the principles cherished by the PKK. There must be a minimum of 40 per cent representation for women in everything the group does, from its military wing to its lesser-known, but increasingly active, political front.
In addition, everyone who volunteers to become a fighter – no one receives a salary in the PKK, which was founded on Marxist ideals – pledges to remain single and childless while they dedicate themselves full time to the cause.
“If there is life, it has to be free. If there is no freedom then there can be no life,” said Mr Karayilan, who joined the PKK as a university student 30 years ago at the age of 20, giving up the chance to marry and have children. “I gave my promise to the Kurdish people that I would work for their rights and their freedom,” he said, sitting beneath a row of pictures of women fighters who have died in the group’s armed struggle, which was launched in 1984.
Turkey blames the PKK for the death of more than 30,000 people over the past 25 years, most recently 15 soldiers and 12 civilians. Mr Karayilan, however, said that 13 of the soldiers attacked a PKK camp and his fighters were defending themselves. He also accused Turkish troops of killing the civilians and blaming the rebels to increase its chances of being granted approval to start a large-scale operation across the border in Iraq.
At least ten PKK fighters have been killed in simmering clashes on the Turkish side of the border this month, the rebel commander said. The PKK, which was founded in Turkey in 1978 by Abdullah Ocalan, presented itself initially as part of the Marxist revolution, campaigning for an independent Kurdish state – something for which the Kurds have long strived.
It attracted thousands of disenchanted youths who were tired of Ankara refusing to grant them equal rights and allow them to speak Kurdish.
After the arrest of Mr Ocalan in 1999 – the PKK leader is currently serving a life sentence on an island prison in Turkey – the group says that it has shifted its focus to dialogue.
“The Kurdish question with Turkey can be solved in the same way as Britain did in Scotland or Spain did in Catalonia,” said Mr Karayilan, advocating the need for a semi-autono-mous Kurdish state inside Turkey.
“Turkey will also benefit from a peaceful solution,” he said. “But their mentality belongs in the 20th century.” He is confident that, with 30 to 40 per cent of his forces in the mountains of northern Iraq, and the rest across the border in Turkey, any large-scale raid by Turkey would fail as it has done repeatedly in the past.
He urged the international community to withdraw its support for Ankara but added: “We are not asking for help from anyone.” With the interview over the commander stood up, posed for a few pictures and then strolled outside, where a group of gunmen were waiting to drive him off to a secret location in the mountains for the night.
Before disappearing into the darkness, Mr Karayilan said that he felt normal, despite the prospect of a bloody conflict. “I am not scared of Turkey or the Turkish Army.”
A people apart
— Around 25 million Kurds live in the areas claimed by the PKK. Half of those are in Turkey, five million live in Iraq and about 1.5 million in Syria
— Kurds are believed to be the world's largest ethnic group without a state. They speak Kurdish, with geographical dialects
— As a precondition for future EU membership, in 2002 the Turkish parliament passed a set of reforms to address the issue of Kurdish minority rights These included allowing radio and television broadcasts in Kurdish, although initially only on state-run channels for six hours a week
— The Turkish reforms also allowed private Kurdish-language education for the first time, but did not go as far as approving state Kurdish-language schools
— Until 1991, the Kurdish language was illegal in Turkey