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ISTANBUL • Kurdish militants have killed 10 police and soldiers in an assault near the Iraqi border, Turkish officials said Monday, amid concern that rebels are seeking to capitalize on regional tensions caused by Syria’s civil war with a more intense campaign of attacks in Turkey.
The attack happened late Sunday in southeastern Sirnak province, a traditional area for militants who have bases in northern Iraq. An undetermined number of Kurdish guerrillas were also killed.
The rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, has benefited from past upheaval and power vacuums in the region, notably after the 1991 Gulf War and the fall of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in a U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Iraqi Kurds consolidated their own mini-state in northern Iraq, inspiring those Kurds in Turkey who want self-rule.
In Syria, regime forces locked in a civil war with opponents of President Bashar Assad ceded control in some areas near the Turkish border to Kurdish fighters said to be linked to Turkey’s Kurdish militants. Turkish analysts suspect the regime’s seemingly passive conduct was aimed at stirring trouble for Turkey, which opposes Assad, by providing additional space for the PKK to organize.
Dogan News Agency video Monday showed Turkish security forces patrolling the town of Beytussebap, where militants attacked police and military posts, as well as apartment buildings that house security forces’ families. An official is seen removing weapons from the rucksack of what appears to be a slain guerrilla, wearing an olive-green uniform and lying in a gutter. In another sequence, Kurdish townspeople are heard shouting slogans in support of jailed rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan as armored vehicles roll through the streets.
Hurriyet newspaper reported Monday that police had fired into the air in the town to disperse a group of Kurds who wanted to take three rebel corpses away for burial.
It was the latest in a surge of operations blamed on the PKK, including a deadly bombing near Syria on Aug. 20 that intensified questions about the security of Turkey’s borders in an unstable region and the possible involvement of outside actors. Turkish officials have not ruled out possible Syrian or Iranian involvement in the bombing, which killed eight people.
Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul on Monday condemned what he called the "separatist terrorist organization" for the attack in Sirnak province.
"The internal and external supporters of this shameful game will sooner or later understand that they have made a wrongful calculation and will be punished," he said. "It should not be forgotten that those who believe that a timely opportunity has arisen, will soon realize their great historic mistake and will be disappointed."
The PKK is conducting some of its most brazen operations since its 1990s heyday, though it is limited to hit-and-run tactics rather than seizing and holding population centers.
"More complications bring them more power because they are feeding from chaos," Umit Ozdag, a terrorism expert at the 21st Century Turkey Institute, a research center, said of the PKK. The group, which has been fighting since 1984, is defined as terrorist by Turkey and the West, but still retains the backing of many in the Kurdish minority, which comprises up to 20 percent of Turkey’s 75 million people.
Syria resembles a proxy battle in which the regime, backed by Iran and Russia, is pitted against Turkey and its Western and Arab allies. Ozdag said the PKK, which used to have close ties to the Syrian regime, has "partisans" on both sides of the conflict, giving militants "an extensive maneuvering range" in which to press their political aims.
Turkey is hosting more than 80,000 Syrian refugees and has urged the United Nations to set up buffer zones inside Syria, a step that would require military intervention. Last year, the PKK’s military chief, Murat Karayilan, spoke in favor of the uprisings that had had swept the Middle East and North Africa, but criticized the idea of outside intervention to oust regimes. The remark seemed aimed at the NATO military campaign in Libya that led to the ouster of leader Moammar Gadhafi, as well as the idea, so far shunned by allied nations, of mounting a similar operation in Syria.
In remarks reported by Firat, a pro-Kurdish news agency, Karayilan said there was a "historical opportunity" in which Syria’s Kurdish minority could obtain its "fair basic rights and gain recognition as a people."
Many Kurds in the PKK have Syrian origins, and reported moves toward autonomy by Syrian Kurds may have invigorated the militant group’s hopes that increased pressure on the battlefield could draw Turkish concessions. Turkey, which has granted more cultural rights to Kurds but fears autonomy could split the nation, is caught between its stated desire for reconciliation and its handling of the conflict as a strictly law-and-order or terrorism problem.
Turkey has also turned its attention to Iran, which has a history of fighting Iranian Kurds allied with the PKK. Turkish media reported last week that an Iranian spy ring was broken up in an eastern province, a sign of how relations have deteriorated over the Syrian conflict. Newspapers reported that suspects had obtained information on police and military posts, and other government sites, and had also had contact with PKK members, though details on the discussions have not been reported.
Two suspects are Iranian and half a dozen others are Turks, according to Anadolu Agency.
Turkey, a NATO ally with a strong economy, has won praise for backing pro-democracy movements in the region, but increasing tensions with its neighbors as well as internal problems with minorities have muddied its image.
On Monday, Human Rights Watch said members of the Turkish security forces and public officials should be held accountable for thousands of unlawful killings and enforced disappearances during fighting between the military and the PKK in the 1990s. Rebels were also accused of human rights abuses in that time. Emma Sinclair-Webb, a senior research for the rights group, said Turkey’s international credibility was on the line as long as it does not address allegations of state impunity stretching back two decades.
"The non-solution of the Kurdish issue in general casts such a shadow over Turkey’s efforts to be a broker, or have this regional role," she said.
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