December 31st, 2007 13:11 EST
Kurdish rebels in Iraq vow to carry out more attacks against Turkey if airstrikes continue
A Kurdish rebel leader in northern Iraq vowed to take the group's battle for autonomy deep inside Turkey if its cross-border airstrikes do not stop.
In a recent interview in the isolated and rugged Qandil mountains in northern Iraq, rebels with the Kurdistan Workers' Party said they would lay down their weapons only if Ankara agreed to give Kurds equal rights, including the right to speak and teach their own language in Turkish schools.
"We will not surrender, and if Turkey continues its aggression against our bases and kills civilians we will respond, we'll begin fighting inside Turkey," said Suzdar Avista, a local PKK leader.
The PKK has been fighting for autonomy in southeast Turkey since the mid-1980s, and their insurgency has left thousands of people dead.
On Dec. 26, Turkish jets hit suspected Kurdish rebel shelters on these snow-covered, rugged mountains for a third time. Turkey has also launched a cross border raid and fired artillery at Kurdish rebel positions since the first airstrike on Dec. 16.
Two days after that airstrike, last Friday, Avista sat with fellow rebels in an area nestled among spindly trees and patches of snow.
"We have these weapons and these mountains," she said, sitting next to a small wood fire to ward off the bitter winter cold, wearing loose drab olive pants and a shirt covered with a blue jacket. Other rebels — men and women — also gathered, drinking cans of cola and heating cans of tuna on the hot embers.
The path to reach Avista wove through a hardened mud road that passed destroyed, abandoned rebel bases shelled by Turkey. Avista said the PKK abandoned the bases before the shelling.
Local residents said the rebels were staying in distant caves. The rebels traditionally withdraw to such hideouts during winter when snowfall hampers their movement in the mountainous regions. They usually intensify their attacks on Turkish targets in the spring.
In the mountain village of Louzai, 54-year-old Aaziz Ibrahim sat despondently on the rubble of her partially destroyed brick and mud thatched home. She sat with her 59-year-old husband Mushir Jalal, wearing the traditional Kurdish dress of loose pants, a long jacket and a scarf wrapped around his head. He said their daughter Suzan, 27, lost her leg in the shelling, which also destroyed their small vegetable garden and a pen for farm animals.
"My daughter was wounded for three hours, hemorrhaging, and there were no ambulances or cars," Jalal said. Dried blood still spattered one wall.
The isolated mountain region has become even more deserted following the airstrikes and shelling as many villagers fled.
Jalal said it was the sixth time his home was destroyed in fighting with Kurdish rebels. The first five times, he said, Iraqi troops under the leadership of Saddam Hussein had demolished it in airstrikes.
"I will build my house again," Jalal said. "But we want a political solution to our region, not shelling."
In October, the Turkish Parliament authorized the military to strike back at the rebels across the border in Iraq.
The United States, which along with Turkey and the European Union considers the PKK a terrorist organization, has long cautioned Ankara against a mass incursion, fearing that it could disrupt one of Iraq's most stable regions. Since November, the U.S. has been providing intelligence on the PKK to Turkey.
"The Turkish state is fighting a psychological battle," Avista said. "They want to raise the spirits of Turkish citizens and break our spirit, but they will not be able to."
Avista said Turkey's bombing and shelling was pointless.
"Fighting is not the solution, and won't benefit either side. The only solution will be on the negotiating table," she said. That would come when Turkey decided to "democratically resolve the Kurdish issue."
She said that meant Turkey had to recognize Kurdish identity, freedom to speak and teach their language in schools and freedom to form political parties.
Turkey does not recognize its Kurdish population as a distinct minority. It has allowed some cultural rights such as limited broadcasts in the Kurdish language and private Kurdish language courses with the prodding of the European Union.
Avista said the PKK was also demanding the release of their leader, Abdullah Ocalan, captured in 1999 and sentenced to life in prison.
Until then, she said they would not surrender.
"Liberation fighters don't go to the mountains to surrender. They come to obtain their freedom. For that, they struggle and die," she said.
The Associated Press