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Exclusive: Kurdish rebel leader says Turkish intransigence harms fight against Islamic State

QANDIL MOUNTAINS, Iraq (Reuters) - Unperturbed by the Turkish fighter jets flying over the mountain where he sat, a top Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader said the conflict between his group and Ankara was undermining efforts to counter Islamic State.

Cemil Bayik, a founding member of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), speaks during an interview with Reuters at the Qandil mountains near the Iraq-Turkey border, October 19, 2013. REUTERS/Stringer

Cemil Bayik said the PKK and its Syrian affiliate had proven the most effective of the forces arrayed against the ultra-hardline militants and were key to the U.S.-led campaign to “degrade and destroy” them.

But the breakdown of a peace process between Turkey and Ankara is hampering that effort, the most senior PKK figure at large and one of Turkey’s most wanted men told Reuters.

“All channels have been closed,” Bayik said in a weekend interview when asked about the prospect of a resumption of talks to end the PKK’s more than 30-year-old armed uprising against Ankara. “They have eradicated all grounds for any negotiations.”

Citing an increase in PKK attacks on the security forces, Turkey resumed bombing the militants in July, targeting them in the country’s southeast and across the border in northern Iraq where they have bases.

Bayik, seated on a plastic chair in bright sunshine after Turkish air raids targeted nearby PKK positions overnight, said there were no longer contacts -- direct or indirect -- with the Turkish state.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan vowed earlier this month to hunt the PKK until every last militant was “liquidated”, in a conflict that has claimed more than 40,000 lives.

The renewed conflict has also complicated Turkey’s role in the U.S.-led fight against Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for the attacks in Paris that killed 130 people and threatened more violence against the West.

Although the PKK’s fight against Islamic State has improved its image, it is still classified a terrorist group by the European Union and United States, which have said Turkey has the right to defend itself by striking the militants.

PKK guerrillas played a role during a recent offensive that drove Islamic State militants out of the town of Sinjar in northwestern Iraq and broke critical supply routes for the group.

In the summer of 2014, fighters from the PKK’s Syrian affiliate helped rescue members of Iraq’s Yazidi minority from Islamic State fighters who were purging them.

PKK guerrillas have a relatively small presence on the front line in northern Iraq alongside the peshmerga forces of the autonomous Kurdistan region, with which Turkey has good relations.

In Syria however, its YPG affiliate has alarmed Ankara by emerging as a key ally for the U.S.-led coalition, driving Islamic State back in the northeast and declaring self-administration in territory along the border with Turkey.


Turkey regards the YPG as a terrorist group like the PKK and fears the militia’s gains in Syria will stoke separatist sentiment among its own Kurdish population.

It has struck the YPG several times after it ventured west of the Euphrates river in Syria, a red line for Turkey as it could lead to control of the whole border.

Bayik accused Erdogan of leveraging Turkey’s cooperation against Islamic State and the refugee crisis to win Western support for his policies, including the war on the PKK.

By accommodating Turkish demands, the West has been left with a contradictory policy that impairs its response to the Islamic State threat, which is evolving, as the recent attacks in Paris show, Bayik said.

“They (the West) don’t want to be in conflict with Turkey or the Kurds, so they are somehow balancing, but that is not right,” Bayik said.

“If the Kurdish question (in Turkey) is not resolved, the problem of Daesh will not be resolved,” he said, using a derogatory Arabic acronym for Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

“What happened in Paris is a clear message that this policy (of balancing Turkey and the Kurds) cannot continue”.

Bayik said the PKK was in contact with the United States indirectly, but wanted to establish direct relations in order to coordinate efforts against Islamic State.

“If they (the international community) want to eliminate Daesh they should help the force that is fighting Daesh best and that is the PKK and the YPG.”

Russia’s intervention in Syria had already positively changed the balance of power, Bayik said, but there was also a downside because Moscow’s primary motive was to shore up President Bashar al-Assad.

“That regime has to change, but first Daesh must be defeated,” Bayik said. “As long as Daesh remains, you cannot change the regime”.

PKK guerrillas man checkpoints on the road through Qandil, where trees have been bronzed by autumn, and the oncoming winter is now coating the peaks with snow.

In a graveyard on the mountain, row upon row of headstones mark the men and women who have died for the PKK’s cause since it took up arms against Turkey in 1984 with the aim of carving out a separate state for the country’s Kurds.

The PKK no longer seeks statehood, but rather devolution of power within existing national borders. The cemetery also shows the PKK’s changing role in the Middle East: the freshest grave belongs to a PKK fighter from Iran killed in Sinjar.

The previous three are victims of renewed Turkish bombardment since a two-year ceasefire fell apart in July.

Bayik accused Erdogan of deliberately reigniting the conflict for political purposes after the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) helped deprive his AK Party of its majority in parliament.

The AK Party regained its majority in a re-election earlier this month but the bombing continues.

Bayik also charged the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which dominates in northern Iraq and is close to Turkey, of assisting Ankara in the war against the PKK by providing intelligence on their positions. Iraqi Kurdish authorities have previously denied that.

For peace talks to restart, Bayik said there would have to be a bilateral ceasefire, and a third party to oversee the process based on the ten-point “Dolmabahce agreement”, which set out a framework for a peace deal earlier this year.

PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, who has been imprisoned on a Turkish island since being captured 16 years ago, would have to be at the forefront of any process. Access to Ocalan has been denied since April 5.

Ultimately, the conflict could only be resolved with a new constitution enshrining Kurdish rights, Bayik said.

“If they accept these conditions we are ready,” he said.

“They will stop (the war) when they realize they cannot eradicate this movement”.

Editing by Michael Georgy and Philippa Fletcher