PKK take steps to bolster Turkish reforms

PKK members surrender to Turkey to back peace reforms. Roy Bennett trial threatens Zimbabwe unity government. Top Islamabad University bombed whilst Pakistan Taliban captures ground. U.S. offers new approach towards Sudan and more in today's Security Briefing.
Geraint Rees
20 October 2009

A group of Kurdish separatist fighters and supporters surrendered themselves to the Turkish army on Monday in a gesture of rebel support for government plans to expand Kurdish rights.

The group, which consisted of eight fighters from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and twenty-six Kurdish refugees, were cheered on by thousands of supporters waving PKK flags as they crossed the Silopi border from Iraq and gave themselves in to the waiting Turkish army. The group were received by a Turkish judge and five prosecutors who will determine whether its members had committed any crimes.

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The symbolic step by the PKK was initiated by Abdullah Ocalan, the group's jailed leader, and is largely seen as backing for a Turkish initiative that is expected to give greater freedoms to the twelve million-strong Kurdish minority. The plan was launched by Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development (AK) Party in August this year but has faced resistance from Turkish nationalist and other opposition parties which perceive the plan as conceding to terrorists. The PKK formed twenty-five years ago to secure Kurdish autonomy in southeast Turkey. The resulting conflict has left more than 45,000 people dead.

The ToD verdict: The PKK announced on Sunday that some of its members would return to Turkey in ‘a move designed to give a chance to peace and to pave the way for democratic politics'. Their return was met by thousands of supporters in the border town of Silopi and supporter rallies across Turkey, indicative that this small gesture signals a historic shift.

After 25 years of violent struggle, the motivation behind the PKK's ‘insistence on peace not war' could lie in the changing attitudes of Kurds towards engagement with Turkey, and the wider international community.

Ethnic Kurds have been striving for recognition of the Kurdish identity and the establishment of an independent Kurdish state since 1922, when the Treaty of Lausanne carved up Kurdish dominated regions into what are now modern Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq. Given this geographic spread, the realisation of a ‘Greater Kurdistan' would involve the break up of four different states, an idea that many in the international community baulk at given the geopolitical importance of the region, and would pose further problems regarding the fate of the Iraqi, Turkish, Iranian and Syrian minorities living in these areas. For these reasons, amongst others, the ideal of independence has largely been dropped by Kurdish groups in the different partition areas, and many now pursue greater recognition and autonomy within the framework of their host state.

In Turkey, the PKK has reduced its main political goals of independence to demands for constitutional recognition of Kurdish language and culture, civil rights and some level of autonomy for Kurdish people living in Turkey. Despite the dilution of its goal, meeting these demands would involve altering the Turkish constitution to give greater rights to Kurdish people, an act which Turkey has traditionally rejected. The resistance to granting some broader cultural and political rights to Kurds by Turkish opposition parties is testament that the group's use of violence over twenty-five years has endangered the possibility of peaceful cohabitation in the same political space.

The PKK's change in tactics may have been inspired by watching the emergence and eventual legalisation of the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq. Negotiation and Kurdish participation in the Baghdad government has brought the consolidation of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region which, although far from an independent state, has given Iraqi Kurds the ability to shape their political future in a significant way and reinvigorated Kurdish aspirations in the wider region. According to broadcaster CNN Turk, the PKK group delivered a letter which stated ‘it has become abundantly clear to both Turks and Kurds that problems will not be resolved with violence and the solution requires political democracy'. The letter could be referring to the Road Map to peace, launched in August by PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. The plan outlines the PKK's goals for Kurdish civil rights in Turkey, and offers suggestions of how Turkey could take the lead in solving the Kurdish issue regionally. Crucially, the plan outlines the steps which would lead to the eventual disarmament of the rebel group.

Turkish moves following the surrender of the group will be watched closely - both by Kurdish groups and the members of the European Union. Kurdish groups may fear a repeat of 1999, when the PKK sent two groups of fighters to Turkey on a similar peace initiative, who were arrested and jailed for belonging to the organisation. Splinter Kurdish movements have denounced the peace initiatives of the PKK and remain committed to violent separatism. EU leaders will look for evidence of a genuine shift in Turkish treatment of the rebels, as greater freedoms and protection of Kurdish minorities is seen as vital if Turkey is to meet the bloc's human-rights criteria for membership.

Terror trial of Tsvangirai aide threatens government unity

The arrest of a senior aide to Zimbabwe's prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, has caused a huge rift which threatens Zimbabwe's fragile unity government. Roy Bennett, the treasurer of Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change, was arrested on his return to Zimbabwe from South Africa in February. He was charged with illegal possession of arms to commit terrorism and banditry and later released on bail. Bennett's was arrested again last week prompting Tsvangirai to threaten his party's disengagement from the unity cabinet he shares with the ZANU-PF party, headed by President Robert Mugabe, calling the party 'dishonest and unreliable'. Bennett is due to stand trial for terrorism, which carries a maximum death sentence on conviction, on 9 November. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has refused to swear Bennett into the unity government until he is acquitted.

Top Islamabad university bombed whilst Pakistan Taliban captures ground

Two suicide bomb blasts at an Islamic university in Pakistan's capital city have killed six people and wounded at least twenty today. The attacks took place early on Tuesday afternoon and hit the women's cafeteria and the Islamic law department. Although no group has yet claimed responsibility, the attacks are the first since the Pakistani army began its offensive against militants in South Waziristan and suspicion falls on Taliban militants in the area. The battle between Pakistan and Taliban militants in the country's north-eastern region raged on today, with reports that militants re-took Kotkai, a small but strategic town on the approach to an insurgent base which had been captured by the army on Monday. More than 20,000 civilians have fled South Waziristan since the beginning of the offensive according to UN reports.

US offers new approach towards Sudan

The US will seek to renew economic sanctions on Sudan, but also promised broad engagement with Khartoum in an effort to end violence in Darfur and the semi-autonomous south. President Barack Obama stated that if Sudan acted to improve the situation on the ground, the US could offer incentives ahead of crucial polls next year. Although the form of the promised incentives remained classified, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton outlined the US goals to end war crimes and other violence in Darfur, ensure implementation of a fraying 2005 peace deal between the Khartoum government and former southern rebels, and to prevent Sudan from becoming a haven for international terror groups. An estimated 300,000 people have been killed in the Sudanese conflict since 2003, many at the hand of government-backed militias.

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