August 20, 2015 / 2:46 PM / 2 years ago

Kurdish civilians under fire as Turkey bombs PKK in Iraq

SIGIRE, Iraq (Reuters) - When Kurdish militant leader Abdullah Ocalan called a ceasefire with Turkey two years ago, residents of the village of Sigire slaughtered a sheep to celebrate what they believed was the start of a new era of peace.

Their homes and orchards in the mountains of northern Iraq had been on the frontline of a war between the Turkish state and Ocalan’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) for more than three decades.

“We felt our lives were beginning again,” said 54-year-old Mam Bashir from Sigire, which is around 20 km (12 miles) from the Turkish border.

Now, they are under fire once more as a peace process between Ankara and the PKK breaks down and Turkish warplanes target the outlawed group in Iraq’s Kurdish north, where many of its fighters are based.

On July 24, missiles smashed into Sigire, setting orchards ablaze.

“It was like paradise, but now it’s ruined,” said Mam Bashir, wading through dead leaves and ash in his orchard, which used to yield all kinds of fruit. “My heart is burning”.

Like many other villages in the border area, Sigire was more or less abandoned at the height of the PKK-Turkey conflict during the 1990s, but its former residents continued to cultivate the land.

The ghost of the village as it once was is outlined in rubble where walls used to stand. The most recent air strikes have scorched the earth and blackened trees.

Before 1990, Sigire was bombed four times by the Iraqi government, which attacked Kurdish areas to quell repeated uprisings. Thereafter, the planes were Turkish, and their target, the PKK.

Mam Bashir said he believed Turkey’s latest offensive was motivated by Kurdish successes in Syria, where a militia affiliated with the PKK has gained territory and international recognition for fighting Islamic State militants.

Backed by coalition air strikes, the YPG, a sister group of the PKK, prevailed over Islamic State in a long battle for the Syrian town of Kobani on the Turkish border. Kurds accuse Turkey of supporting Islamic State against them.

“They bombed our area in revenge for Kobani,” Mam Bashir said.

Turkey launched the air strikes in late July as part of what the government called a “synchronized war on terror”, including action against the Kurdish militants, Islamic State insurgents in northern Syria and far-leftist groups at home.

The campaign against the PKK was a response to a surge in attacks on the security forces, Turkish officials have said. They say more than 50 soldiers and police officers have died at the hands of the group since July 20 and more than 170 wounded.

“FROM THE BLACK SEA TO SINJAR”

More than 40,000 people have been killed since the PKK took up arms against the Turkish government in 1984. Under a deal, the PKK withdrew to the mountains in northern Iraq where they are now entrenched.

In the Sigire orchard, two young PKK guerrillas with Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders appeared at one stage. Later, another group emerged.

“We are everywhere: from the Black Sea to Sinjar,” said one of the guerrilla fighters, a Kurd from Turkey.

But the widespread presence of the fighters means that civilians are often caught up in the violence.

Salih Mukail, a 42-year-old father of 11, was in the mountains near the Turkish border, foraging for mushrooms and other wild plants to sell in the market when Turkey dropped its first bombs last month.

It was night, and Mukail rushed to get down the mountain with his two companions, but his load was heavy and he fell behind. At dawn, he stopped to pray. As he shouldered his load to set off again, he was thrown to the ground and overcome by pain in his ankle.

“I looked down and saw my foot was hanging off,” said Mukail, lying on a bed where he is still recovering.

Mukail used a shoelace to tie a tourniquet around his thigh and bound the severed foot with his shirt, dragging himself along on his front until his companions, who had heard his cries, rushed back.

They carried him some of way, but feared they might be hit themselves and so hid Mukail in the undergrowth whilst they went to get help to take him to hospital, where his right leg was amputated below the knee.

“They (the Turks) must have thought I was PKK,” said Mukail, his one remaining foot poking out from under a blanket.

The PKK’s presence in northern Iraq is awkward for the Kurdistan regional Government (KRG), which has developed close relations with neighboring Turkey. Although both Kurdish, the PKK and KRG are rivals.

After the first air strikes on the group last month, Kurdish president Massoud Barzani called on the PKK to move its war away from civilian areas.

Eight civilians were killed by Turkish air strikes on Aug. 1 in what Amnesty International denounced as an “unlawful attack” on a village in the PKK’s Qandil mountain stronghold in Iraq. The watchdog said there did not appear to have been any military target in the vicinity.

The Turkish military has denied allegations that it hit civilians in the village of Zargala during air strikes and said the target was a shelter for PKK militants. It said an investigation returned no evidence of civilian residential areas within the impact range of the bombing.

Some civilians are wary of having neighbors that put them in the line of fire. Forty-three year old Khoshavi Salim from the village of Sargali, which was also bombed said: “We have no problem with them, but when the Turkish government attacks them, it attacks us”.

Editing by Dominic Evans

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