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Wednesday, February 17, 1999 Published at 15:20 GMT

World: Europe

A people divided by borders

Where the Kurds live: Map shows estimated population numbers

By Regional Analyst Pam O'Toole

As Kurds in Europe reacted angrily to Abdullah Ocalan's forced return to Turkey, the row over the Kurdish guerrilla leader has focused international attention on the Kurdish question.

The Ocalan File
Mr Ocalan's Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) has waged a 15-year armed struggle against Ankara. It wants some form of independence or autonomy for Turkey's Kurdish minority.

Although Abdullah Ocalan is regarded as a terrorist by Turkey and many European countries, he is the only man regarded as powerful enough to take on the might of the Turkish state in the name of the country's estimated 10 million Kurds.

[ image: About 10 million Kurds live in Turkey]
About 10 million Kurds live in Turkey
During his 15-year-old armed struggle against Ankara as head of the PKK, he called at first for independence and then later for some kind of autonomy for his people.

Most recently, he was campaigning 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.

[ image:  ]
But for many of the 20m Kurds across the region, the latest events will come as little surprise.

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 current predicament 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.

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