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Tuesday, 21 November, 2000, 11:49 GMT
A people divided by borders
Where the Kurds live: Map shows estimated population
By Regional Analyst Pam O'Toole

The appeal against the death penalty of Kurdish guerrilla leader Abdullah Ocalan has focused international attention on the Kurdish question.

Mr Ocalan, former leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), is widely held responsible in Turkey for the killings of more than 30,000 people during 16 years of armed conflict.

About 12 million Kurds live in Turkey
But since his arrest, he has urged his supporters to give up armed conflict and has abandoned calls for self-rule for Turkey's 12 million Kurds.

Independence of some kind had always been the aim of the armed struggle.

Although Abdullah Ocalan was regarded as a terrorist by Turkey and many European countries, he was the only man regarded as powerful enough to take on the might of the Turkish state on behalf of the Kurds.

As head of the PKK, he called at first for independence and then later for some kind of autonomy for his people.

Later, he campaigned for political asylum, hoping he could transform the armed struggle into a political one and place the Kurdish issue firmly on the European political agenda.

Turkey's Kurds hoped European pressure would force Ankara to review policies which deny basic cultural rights such as education and broadcasts in the Kurdish language.

Concentrated in the mountainous area where Iran, Iraq and Turkey meet, the Kurds are used to being used as pawns in regional and international power games, given promises and then abandoned by their erstwhile allies when it suited them.

They will recall only too clearly how, after World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the victorious Western allies promised them an independent Kurdish state in the Treaty of Sevres.

Such hopes were quickly dashed when the treaty was renegotiated. Since then any move by the region's Kurds to state up an independent state has been brutally quashed.

The PKK is not the only Kurdish group to have used its neighbour's territory to mount hit and run attacks against its own country. Some have, at times, allied themselves with regional states.

But they have had to be prepared for often brutal retaliation from their home governments. Baghdad's poison gas attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988 was prompted by suspicions that the residents had collaborated with Iranian forces who had just captured the area. Five thousand Kurds died in the attack.

Divided people

The Kurds of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria often argue that they form a distinctive community through race, culture and language, even though they have no standard dialect.

Nationalist Kurds speak of their homeland as "Kurdistan", even though it is divided by international borders. But in fact they are notoriously divided, often by completely different political agendas.

Kurdish political parties can be Marxist, Islamic, or distinctly tribal in outlook. Rather than uniting against a common enemy, the Kurds have often fought each other.

One of the two main Kurdish parties in northern Iraq has allied itself with Turkey to drive the PKK from its territory.

So while Mr Ocalan's fate may be the source of anguish to Turkey's Kurds, other Kurds may view it with either indifference or jubilation.

The region's Kurdish groups are unlikely to unite behind him and may well remain as bitterly divided as ever.

Meanwhile the governments of the region remain solidly united in their determination to prevent the emergence of an independent Kurdish state.

News and background on Abdullah Ocalan

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