According to a statement by Turkish security forces issued Thursday, fighters from the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) killed a state militia member the previous day. Mehmet Ugurtay was shot while waiting to pick up students at a primary school in his capacity as a protective “village guard.” (Some Turkish media report that Ugurtay belonged to a PKK rival party, the Huda-Par (Free Cause) party.) Wednesday’s attack adds to an uptick of violence in the region, where PKK militants have reportedly abducted several soldiers, blocked roads, and forcibly recruited local youths to their movement in recent weeks.
The unrest, which was sparked by anger over the construction of several new military outposts, is the latest blow to fragile peace talks between the PKK and Ankara. While an end to the 30-year-old Kurdish conflict looked possible in early 2013, when the PKK agreed to a ceasefire brokered by Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, negotiations have since stalled; Kurdish groups argue that the Turkish government has reneged on its promised reforms. In September 2013, the PKK halted its withdrawal to Kurdish territories in northern Iraq to protest the limited progress made by Erdogan’s administration.
Indeed progress has been piecemeal. While according minor concessions when it comes to Kurds’ language and cultural rights, Ankara has shied away from the PKK’s main demands, i.e., legalization of schooling in the Kurdish language, the release of jailed PKK militants, and the transfer of jailed movement leader Abdullah Öcalan to house arrest. Buoyed by the advances made by Kurdish movements in neighboring Syria and Iraq, little wonder that the PKK is now upping its offensive. Not that the movement’s tactics are being welcomed by all in the southeast Kurdish heartland. A group of some 16 families launched a sit-in in the regional capital Diyarbakir, now entering its eleventh day, and are demanding the PKK return their children, who they claim were kidnapped, not recruited, by militants.
Erdogan is jumping into the fray as well. In a speech to his supporters Wednesday the Turkish premier urged the main Kurdish BDP/HDP party to secure the children’s release. If it doesn’t, Erdogan warned that his government may be forced to implement “our plan B and plan C.” It’s questionable how far Erdogan is willing to go however. Although overtures to PKK militants have been uneasily met by the premier’s conservative base, Erdogan badly needs the Kurdish vote, which represents 1/5 of the population, if he bids, as expected, for the presidency come August. (The Turkish leader has reached his term limit as prime minister.) He is also counting on Kurdish parliamentary factions to support his proposed expansion of presidential powers.
While the PKK isn’t prepared for a sustained, violent offensive, look for the movement to continue its minor assaults in the hopes of securing greater concessions from Ankara – all the while dangling Kurdish votes over the prime minister’s head.