CUKURCA, Turkey (Reuters) - Helicopter gunships clatter above the plunging ravines on the Turkish-Iraqi frontier, scouring the mountainsides for Kurdish rebel fighters.
On the twisting roads, military vehicles run the risk of roadside bombs or ambush as they ferry troops to checkpoints and border posts.
Sometimes Turkish forces go further, launching airstrikes against militant bases in northern Iraq, or ordering troops to cross the border in hot pursuit of guerrilla raiding parties. On Thursday night, warplanes struck rebels in the mountains.
Barely a year after Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan announced a new deal between the state and its Kurdish minority, hopes of an end to Turkey’s decades-long conflict have been wrecked by an upsurge in violence in the Kurdish southeast.
Families in the dusty mountain border town of Cukurca have grown used to waking every night to the booming sound of artillery shelling and mortar fire echoing in the surrounding hills as troops and separatist guerrillas trade fire.
“People didn’t expect peace to come at once, so now we are used to the violence again,” said a man in his 30s, who didn’t want to be named for fear of offending either side.
In recent weeks, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) separatist group has stepped up attacks on the military, having formerly ended a 14-month-old ceasefire in June.
More than 80 soldiers have been killed so far this year — already more than the total in 2009.
Grieving mothers hold pictures of baby-faced men in uniform, while news channels convey a sense of national mourning in their coverage of religious services for the dead soldiers.
Such is the anger over the deaths of soldiers that government officials have been attacked at funerals, where crowds wave Turkish flags and chant nationalist slogans.
Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, the AK Party, had gambled last year on improving Kurdish rights, hoping that this “democratic opening” would help wind down a 26-year-old conflict that has wiped out around 40,000 lives.
Now under pressure to respond to escalating PKK attacks, the government says the rebels will “drown in their own blood,” and thousands of elite troops have been deployed along the border.
The counter-insurgency operations are helped by intelligence sharing with Iraqi and U.S. military authorities, though sometimes Iraq protests over violations of its sovereignty.
The violence could handicap Erdogan’s attempt to form a single-party government for a third consecutive term, with a general election now 12 months away or less.
Seeking to ease Kurdish grievances, Erdogan last year lifted some restrictions on cultural and political rights, reversing aggressive state policies drafted after a military coup in the 1980s that only hardened support for the PKK.
The moves won applause among liberals and Kurds for breaking taboos on the Kurdish problem, which has drained hundreds of billions of dollars from the Turkish state.
While reforms were required for European Union entry, the government is unlikely to make more concessions with an election coming, having seen the strength of a nationalist backlash.
Images of PKK members receiving a heroes’ welcome after returning to Turkey under a pilot amnesty plan riled public opinion in wealthier western Turkey, where many people are indifferent to the woes of the poor, far-flung southeast.
“To solve the Kurdish problem, you need to be brave and this government was not brave enough,” said Arif Koparan, head of the Trade and Business Association of the nearby town of Hakkari.
“The government promised many things to the Kurds, but in the end they were just words. Erdogan was too afraid of losing voters so the process never took off,” Koparan said.
Kurds say that while the government in Ankara spoke of granting reforms, security forces in the southeast were systematically cracking down on Kurdish politicians, detaining hundreds, including mayors, for suspected links to the PKK.
Prosecutors have continued imposing long prison sentences on Kurdish journalists and on children involved in stone throwing despite promises to ease harsh anti-terrorism laws that have been criticized by international human rights groups.
“There is still a military mentality in the Turkish state,” said Hakkari mayor Fadil Bedirhanoglu, of the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party.
Bedirhanoglu said some 2,000 of his party members have been detained in recent months, and only a few have been charged.
Bedirhanoglu said Kurdish demands, far from calling for independence, are reasonable; they include amending the constitution to recognize a Kurdish identity in Turkey and allowing state schools to teach in Kurdish.
Bedirhanoglu cited a resistance to change from the “Deep State” — a nebulous coalition of interests embracing the army, establishment politicians and judges.
The PKK is listed as a terrorist group by Ankara, the United States and the EU, but analysts fear the conflict and neglect has resulted in a dangerous ethnic fault line.
Many in the in violence-hit towns and villages in the southeast see the PKK as the defender of Kurdish rights, as their hopes in the reform process have faded.
In the village of Yuksekova, graffiti scrawled on store shutters and walls of dilapidated houses praises jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.
“If we live and breathe it’s because of the PKK,” said Dilges, a skinny 18-year-old with braces from the village where unemployment stands at 70 percent.
Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore