As Turkey keeps up attacks against Kurdish rebels in their stronghold in the Qandil Mountains straddling Iran and Iraq, the plight of Turkish soldiers, intelligence operatives and various other Turkish citizens being held by the militants has received scant attention and there is growing worry among their families they might get caught in the middle.
Rights groups have urged the opposition to highlight their plight ahead of critical presidential and parliamentary elections on June 24. Critics charge that Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan launched the latest wave of airstrikes on Qandil to garner nationalist support in the polls. “We are bombing Qandil. And in a few days we will have auspicious news for you,” Erdogan said at a campaign rally on June 15, prompting speculation that either a senior Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) figure would be captured or killed, or the hostages freed.
“There are easily dozens of such captives in the hands of the PKK,” said Ozturk Turkdogan, the president of Turkey’s Human Rights association who liaises with the rebels and the government on their families’ behalf. “We contacted all the opposition leaders urging them to say something and got no response,” he told Al-Monitor. Turkdogan speculated they are ignoring the issue for fear that Turkey’s hawkish president would use it against them. “Erdogan could easily accuse them of trying to sabotage the Qandil operation and of supporting terrorists.”
Erdogan has already leveled similar accusations against Muharrem Ince, his pro-secular opposition rival who has emerged as something of a potential nemesis according to recent opinion polls. Erdogan called Ince a “terrorist flunky” after Ince visited Selahattin Demirtas, the imprisoned presidential contender running for the largest pro-Kurdish bloc. “He is leaning on murderers with bloodstained hands for support,” Erdogan declared at a campaign rally in the mainly Kurdish province of Van on June 19.
On June 7, the PKK released videos of nine captives who complained about the government’s inertia and appealed to authorities, members of the opposition and civic rights groups to take action on their behalf. “The government should do something for us. Have we been stripped of our citizenship? Not a soul even utters our names,” lamented one Muslum Altintas, who was captured by the PKK on Oct. 2, 2015, during his mandatory military service in Tunceli province. Another conscript called Suleyman Sungur said he had been held for three years. “I haven’t heard from my mother, my father, from nobody. This war has continued for 40 years, with nothing gained. People have only died. We want peace, for people not to die and to be reunited with our families.”
Turkey has steadily escalated attacks against the PKK since a mutually observed cease-fire collapsed along with peace talks in 2015. The PKK has been waging a bloody campaign initially for Kurdish independence and now for self-rule inside Turkey since 1984, and is formally designated a terror group by the United States and the European Union.
Turkdogan said the PKK had agreed to post the videos of the captives at his behest. “We wanted families to see with their own eyes that they are alive and OK but also to create awareness,” he said. The militants might have also reckoned that the videos would serve as a deterrent against further Turkish attacks. The Turkish government has not commented on them so far.
In January, the PKK published footage of two high-ranking members of Turkey’s national spy agency MIT who were seized during a sting operation in the Iraqi Kurdish-controlled Sulaimaniyah province as they were allegedly plotting to assassinate Cemil Bayik, a top PKK commander.
The affair was a huge embarrassment and MIT’s high-flying boss Hakan Fidan has kept a low profile ever since.