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Turkey: Reform falters as violence spreads

More people dying in clash between Turkey and Kurdish rebels than in Afghan war.

Turkey funeral
Soldiers, family members and friends attend a funeral ceremony for 17-year-old Buse Sraiyag, in her hometown of Elmadag, near Ankara on June 23, 2010. Buse Sraiyag was killed along with four soldiers in a bomb attack by suspected Kurdish rebels in Istanbul. (Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images)

DIYARBAKIR, Turkey — The shadow of war is again hanging heavily over Turkey.

After breaking a 14-month ceasefire this June, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party has stepped up bomb attacks and attacks on the Turkish military. At least 100 fighters, including 30 Turkish soldiers, have been killed over the past few weeks — many more than the casualties reported from the Afghan war for the same period.

“This is about to explode big time,” said Henri Barkey, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “It’s going to be messy and it’s going to be all over the country.”

For three decades the Kurdistan Party has fought — initially for an independent state, but now its leaders say they merely want language rights, enhanced local autonomy and amnesty for its fighters — in a conflict that has cost the lives of some 40,000 people.

The crisis is dividing Turkey between those who hold out hope for a democratic solution and those who, increasingly disillusioned after the failure of last summer’s so-called “democratic opening” — a reform initiative designed to deal with the decades-old Kurdish insurrection— believe the rising cycle of violence is unlikely to stop.

Banners that read, “Let guns be silenced for peace and brotherhood,” written in both Turkish and Kurdish, filled Istanbul’s central Istiklal Street this weekend as hundreds of activists gathered to protest the mounting bloodshed.

Meanwhile, packed military vehicles traverse the soft hills of Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast, carrying troops to border posts or checkpoints. Overhead, F-16 fighter jets frequent the skies.

“There is no magic wand,” said Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in an address to Parliament this week. “If we look at it as merely a question of security, we would be wrong. We have done so for years. The results are clear.”

Since coming to power in 2002, the governing Justice and Development Party has released a number of Kurdish political prisoners and eased the ban on Kurdish language and culture. Their political overtures, however, have suffered from a lack of broad political consensus.

Devlet Behceli, an opposition leader, recently called Erdogan’s softer policy a “project of treason.” This past December the peace process was dealt a major blow when Turkey’s constitutional court banned the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party because of its alleged links to the militants.

“If you kick out all of the people in charge, who are you going to work towards a solution with?” asked Yeter, a young Kurdish woman who spent five years in prison outside of Diyarbakir.

The much-anticipated return last October of a group of Kurdish militants and supporters, who Erdogan had granted unofficial amnesty, has also turned soured. The hero’s welcome the group was given by thousands of Kurds on the Turkish side of the border turned the event into a political nightmare for the government and all 34 returnees, with the exception of four children, have now been charged with speaking in support of a terrorist organization.