Attack on Mt. Ararat Germany Becomes a Target of the Kurdish PKK

For months, German authorities have been moving against Kurdish radicals in Germany. Now, the rebels from the PKK have made good on their warnings and struck back. Are last week's kidnappings on Mt. Ararat the beginning of a wider campaign?


All it took was two words, nothing more. At times, those two words were enough to drive hundreds, even thousands, onto German streets and market squares. Last December in Düsseldorf, more than 10,000 people took to the streets in the name of those two words: "Êdî bese!" Many carried signs emblazoned with the slogan, and some had even written it on their foreheads. It was repeated over and over by the tens of thousands: "Êdî bese! êdî bese! êdî bese!" -- "enough! enough! enough!" But despite the size of the demonstrations, few paid attention. Perhaps the Kurds would have won more notice if they had chanted their slogan in German. But even that is unlikely.

The Kurds are an ignored minority. Germany hosts fully 500,000 of them -- the largest concentration of Kurds outside of their traditional areas of settlement in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria -- but they hardly ever hit the headlines in the country, despite their ongoing struggle for an independent homeland.

Ten years ago, it was different. Then, the Kurds attracted attention by periodically blocking German autobahns, holding hunger strikes or even lighting themselves on fire. But ever since Turkish intelligence agents, with the help of the CIA, captured the best-known Kurdish activist in Nairobi in February 1999, Germany's Kurds have gone off the radar screen. Since then Abdullah Öcalan, the founder of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), has been in solitary confinement at the island prison of Imrali in the Sea of Marmara. No one mentions Öcalan anymore, nor does anyone talk about the Kurdish conflict these days -- at least not in Germany.

Disappeared into the Darkness

That silence, though, is now at an end. Late last Tuesday evening, five armed men turned up at an isolated tent camp on Mount Ararat. They introduced themselves, almost formally, to a group of German mountain climbers who had come to climb the legendary mountain in Turkey's far east. The climbers had planned to make their summit push the next morning.

According to members of the mountaineering group, one of the five interlopers, speaking in broken English, launched into a lecture about the situation of the Kurdish people. Then the men took three hostages and disappeared into the darkness, instructing the remaining mountain climbers not to break camp until the next morning.

Since then, the Kurds are front-page news in Germany once again, and the three unsuspecting Bavarian mountain climbers have become caught in the workings of global politics. No one knows where the Kurds have taken them. A crisis team was quickly convened at the German Foreign Office, by now almost routine. There have been plenty of kidnappings of German nationals in recent months: in Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq and, most recently, off the Somali coast. But for the kidnapping experts at the Foreign Ministry, dealing with the Kurds was a first.

The kidnappers were last heard from last Thursday. The letter claiming responsibility for the abductions, released by the "People's Defense Forces" (HPG), the military arm of the PKK, reads like a declaration of war. In a statement broadcast by the PKK-affiliated news agency Firat, the rebels said that the tourists from Bavaria would not be released until Germany agreed to "end its hostile policy towards the Kurdish people and the PKK."

International Attention for the PKK

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble promptly announced that Germany would not succumb to blackmail. Chancellor Angela Merkel also appealed to the kidnappers over the weekend to release their hostages.

The PKK leadership likewise seemed less than enthusiastic about the abductions. In a statement released by the group on Sunday, the PKK said that the kidnappings had been carried out by a local group on their own and said "we will take measures to ensure that the tourists return safely to their families." But the group also demanded that Berlin call on Turkey to cease military operations against the PKK.

Still, even if the PKK leadership seemed interested in distancing itself from the abductions, one can hardly ignore that the PKK has suddenly regained what it has sorely missed in recent years: international attention. The militant Kurdish organization, banned in Germany since 1993, seemed weakened and on the verge of collapse recently. Now it has managed to force its way back into the limelight.

Police and government security forces are concerned about what this could mean. The kidnapping has the potential to dramatically alter the security situation in Germany, once again turning the country into a secondary theater of the Kurdish conflict. For a country that is home to both the world's largest Kurdish community in exile and the largest Turkish community outside of Turkey, this is not an appealing prospect. Friction between the two groups has not been uncommon in the past.

Paradoxically, the Germans have little influence on how the situation develops, because the key players in this game are not in Berlin, but in Washington and Ankara. The three harmless Bavarian mountain climbers have become bargaining chips in a struggle for power and influence in one of the world's most strategically important regions. Those who seek to understand that struggle -- and who want to find the roots of Kurdish rage against Germany and the rest of the Western world -- must begin by following two paths, one that leads to Washington and international politics, and the other to the mid-sized German city of Wuppertal.

Last November, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with US President George W. Bush in the US capital. It was an encounter that has since shaped international policy toward the Kurds. But not only does the policy affect their homeland in eastern Turkey and northern Iraq and Iran, but it also affects the countries where the largest groups within the Kurdish diaspora live: Germany, France and the Netherlands.

Large-Scale Military Intervention

By the time of Erdogan's meeting with Bush, Turkey had already lost more than 200 soldiers and civilians in 2007 in its fight against Kurdish guerillas. As a result, Ankara was exerting growing pressure on Washington to take action against the Kurdish separatists, who were using northern Iraq as a safe haven for their training camps and weapons depots. If the Americans remained passive, the Turks threatened, they would invade northern Iraq -- a nightmare scenario for the United States, and for Europe. To that point, the north was the only region in war-torn Iraq that had remained relatively calm and stable.

The two heads of state reached a compromise. Erdogan promised not to stage a large-scale military intervention in Iraq. In return, Bush agreed to accept limited military strikes by Turkish forces. He also promised the Turkish prime minister extensive aid in Ankara's struggle against the PKK. Under the pact, the Americans would provide Turkey with extensive intelligence, take action against PKK facilities in Iraq and cut off the rebels' sources of financial support and their logistical supply lines.

Soon after the Washington meeting, Bush said in comments about the PKK that "they're an enemy of Turkey, they're an enemy of Iraq and they're an enemy of the United States." Erdogan went home satisfied, but only after he had announced limited "operations" in Iraq. A few weeks later, the Turkish military launched strikes into northern Iraq. In February, in one wave of attacks alone, Turkish fighter jets bombed more than 70 presumed PKK positions.

At the same time, the United States launched a diplomatic offensive in Europe. In February, Frank C. Urbancic, Jr., the US State Department's deputy counterterrorism coordinator, told the Turkish daily Hürriyet that the United States would act as a "bridge, translator and catalyst" to help European countries better understand the "true pain" of Turks. Before that, the American ambassador to Turkey had announced that the United States would do its best to convince the Europe to take the PKK issue "more seriously."


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