Kurdish rebels, Turkey seem to soften their stands Release of prisoners among hopeful signs


ISTANBUL, Turkey -- The recently negotiated release of six Turkish soldiers captured by Kurdish rebels suggests at least the beginning of a change in thinking about a conflict that has seemed likely to drag on forever.

Until lately, both the government and the rebels have insisted that their single goal is military victory and that no nonmilitary solution to the conflict is possible.

But in recent months, the rebel leader, Abdullah Ocalan, has been quoted as saying that he would settle for autonomy rather than full independence for Turkey's Kurdish region in the southeast.

Turkey's new prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, has said he hopes to ease the terms of emergency rule under which much of the southeast is governed.

Last week, the government was reportedly considering some form of amnesty for Kurdish prisoners.

Political and military leaders have resolutely refused to deal with the rebel Kurdistan Workers Party, known as the PKK, for any purpose, including negotiating the release of prisoners.

A member of Parliament who traveled to PKK strongholds in northern Iraq three months ago to seek the release of prisoners was bitterly denounced and threatened with prosecution when he returned.

The politician, Fethullah Erbas, a member of the governing Welfare Party, was unsuccessful that time.

But last week he went back to northern Iraq. This time he was successful, returning with six young men who had been held prisoner for more than a year.

The government and the press, which covers the conflict according to unwritten rules laid down by the military, portray the PKK as a terrorist organization financed principally by heroin smuggling. Police officials in several Western European countries also believe that the PKK is heavily involved in drug trafficking; the party denies it.

On Tuesday, an Istanbul daily, Yeni Yuzyil, which says it has obtained secret documents related to the government's use of death squads to fight the rebels, published what it said was a jTC report showing that in 1994, Tansu Ciller, then the prime minister, authorized a payment of more than $2 million to a Turkish gunman for an operation aimed at killing Ocalan, the rebel leader.

Last month, the gunman, Abdullah Catli, died along with a senior police official in a car crash that has set off a major scandal here. Ciller has not commented on the report.

Government leaders and Turkish journalists routinely refer to PKK combatants as terrorists, and they described the six captured soldiers as hostages, carefully avoiding the use of the word "prisoner."

"They have an underlying reason for this," said the chairman of the Ankara-based Human Rights Association, Akin Birdal, who was part of the delegation that traveled to northern Iraq to arrange the soldiers' release. "If they accepted that the Turkish soldiers were POWs, then they would have to consider people who had fought for the other side as POWs as well, which would force them to act within the boundaries of international law."

A handful of Turkish soldiers captured by the PKK have been released in the past without ceremony.

But last week's group release was the first known to have been the result of negotiation.

Last week, the three negotiators met in Ankara and then traveled secretly to the Iraqi city of Dohuk, where the prisoners' relatives had been camped out for weeks hoping for their release. There they met PKK members who brought them and the relatives to a camp near the Iraqi town of Amadiya.

"The camp is established in rocky hills and mighty caves, resembling an eagle's lair," wrote a Turkish journalist who was present, adding: "The beating of hearts seemed noisy enough to move the rocks around, when the commander of the camp told the families to come out of the tents as the soldiers had arrived. Then the soldiers were restored to their families. The scene at the gathering brought a tear to everyone's eyes."

Pub Date: 12/15/96

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