A sharp rise in attacks by the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has increased pressure on the Turkish government. On Monday, nine Turkish soldiers were killed by a PKK mine near the village of Sariyazi in the province of Erzincan in eastern Anatolia in the highest death toll suffered by the Turkish military in a single incident so far this year. The dead included a lieutenant colonel, two professional NCOs and six conscripts performing their military service. Another three soldiers were seriously wounded.
The deaths appear to be the result of a trap set by the PKK. Early on Monday morning, a local gendermarie unit received intelligence that PKK militants had been seen in the village of Sariyazi the previous evening asking for food. A truck carrying 15 members of the gendermarie was sent to the village to investigate. As they returned, a mine hidden at the side of the road was detonated by remote control.
A few hours before the mine explosion in Sariyazi, a suspected PKK militant was shot and killed by Turkish police in the city of Antakya as he apparently attempted to leave a bag containing an improvised explosive device (IED) composed of 12 kilogrammes of C4 explosives outside a police station. The previous week, the PKK claimed responsibility for a mortar attack on a military barracks in the neighbourhood of Uskudar in the centre of Istanbul and an explosion on the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline, which runs for 1,770 kilometres from Azerbaijan through Georgia to Turkey’s eastern Mediterranean coast.
The mortar attack in Istanbul on 7 August injured three civilians, none of them seriously, when the shells fell short of their intended target. The attack came less than two weeks after a double bombing in the Gungoren neighbourhood of Istanbul on 27 July that killed 17 people and injured another 154. Although the PKK has denied responsibility, Turkish authorities remain adamant that the design of the IEDs and statement of suspected PKK militants arrested after the attack prove that the organisation was responsible. If the allegations are true, the PKK’s 24 year-old campaign for greater cultural and political rights for Turkey’s substantial Kurdish minority would appear to be entering a new, more ruthless phase.
Similarly, if the PKK was responsible for the explosion and subsequent fire on the BTC pipeline, it suggests that the organisation is no longer concerned with antagonising the EU and the US. The BTC carries around one per cent of the world’s total supplies of crude oil. On 5 August, there was an explosion at a valve on a section of the pipeline running through the Turkish province of Erzincan. The pipeline was immediately shut down as the Turkish authorities waited for the oil in the damaged section to burn itself out. It was six days before the blaze was finally extinguished. It is expected to be several weeks before the pipeline can be repaired and the oil flow return to normal. Global oil prices rose by $2 a barrel on the news that the BTC had been closed down.
Turkish authorities tried to pass the explosion off as an accident, aware that they are responsible for security for the 1,076 kilometres of the BTC that runs through Turkey and would have to pay compensation to oil companies using the pipeline if it could be proven that the flow of oil had been interrupted as a result of a terrorist attack. The BTC is buried at a depth of at least one metre along most of its length, precisely to safeguard the pipeline against terrorist attacks. But experts have long warned that Turkey has tried to cut costs by relying solely on its security forces to protect more vulnerable parts of the pipeline.
"I know the pipeline very well," commented one engineer on condition of anonymity. "I don’t know of any way that such a major fire could break out as the result of an accident. People say that it is safe against terrorist attacks, but that is only partly true. The pipeline itself is underground but the valves used to shut off the oil in case of a leakage are on the surface and very vulnerable. Georgia and Azerbaijan both reinforced the valves to make it harder to damage them. But Turkey did nothing. The government seems to have thought that it would be possible to protect the pipeline just by deploying soldiers every now and then along its length. Even if the PKK wasn’t responsible for the explosion, it would be quite easy to cause a lot of damage by blowing up one of the valves."
The recent increase in PKK attacks comes after a series of statements by Turkish authorities suggesting that the organisation was in retreat. In autumn 2007, after a previous similar sudden increase in casualties from PKK attacks, Turkey finally persuaded the US to allow it to strike at the organisation’s camps and bases in northern Iraq. Turkish air raids began in December 2007 and have continued at regular intervals ever since. Each raid has been followed by Turkish military communiqués describing the raids as unmitigated successes and detailing the devastating damage inflicted on the PKK. Until recently, Turkish officials were able to point to a decline in PKK attacks this year compared with 2007 as proof of the success of the raids in northern Iraq. However, as the recent increase in PKK attacks have demonstrated, even if the Turkish raids have forced the organisation onto the defensive, making it more ruthless, they have certainly not destroyed it.
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