Is Turkey Using Chemical Weapons Against the Kurds?

The German weekly newsmagazine Der Spiegel has published an investigative article that accuses the Turkish military of using chemical weapons against members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The magazine reports that forensic experts at the Hamburg University Hospital have confirmed the authenticity of 31 photographs that show the severely scorched bodies of eight PKK fighters who are believed to have been killed in the Kurdish town of Çukurca in September 2009. The hospital says it is highly probable that the victims in the photographs, six men and two women who are said to be scarcely recognizable as human beings, died “due to the use of chemical substances.”

The photographs were given to a German human rights delegation that was visiting Turkey in March 2010. That delegation was associated with Die Linke, the far-left political party that traces its roots back to the communist party in the former East Germany, which would imply that the allegations warrant skepticism. But it seems unlikely that Der Spiegel, which is one of the largest publications in Europe, with a weekly circulation of more than one million, would publish the story without first determining its veracity. In any case, Der Spiegel reports that Hans Baumann, one of Germany’s leading forgery specialists, has also confirmed the authenticity of the photographs.

According to a detailed report by the Berlin daily newspaper Die Tageszeitung, the incident took place on September 8, when Turkish military headquarters received word that one of its soldiers had been killed by PKK fighters. The army responded by dispatching helicopters and several troop units to the area in an effort to scatter an estimated 7,000 PKK fighters. According to eyewitnesses cited by Die Tageszeitung, eight PKK fighters tried to escape by hiding in a nearby cave. But they were soon discovered by Turkish troops, who proceeded to fire artillery shells, allegedly laden with poison gas, into the cave. Turkish troops later pulled the lifeless bodies from the cave, sprayed them with bullets, and then drove over them with their tanks.

Die Tageszeitung reports it has also obtained other autopsy photographs of six Kurds killed in similar circumstances in Şirnak province in south-eastern Anatolia. Those pictures currently are being analyzed for their authenticity by the University Hospital in Hamburg.

German politicians and human rights experts now are demanding an international probe. “The latest findings are so spectacular that the Turkish side urgently needs to explain things,” says Claudia Roth, the co-chair of Germany’s left-wing Green Party. “It is impossible to understand why an autopsy of the PKK fighters was ordered but the results kept under seal.” Roth adds that there have been repeated “mysterious incidents of this type that are crying out for an independent investigation.”

Ruprecht Polenz, the center-right chairman of the German parliament’s Foreign Relations Committee, says that “Turkey needs to urgently look into these accusations.” He is also calling for an international investigation. Uta Zapf, the center-left chairman of the German parliament’s Arms Control and Disarmament Committee, says that “it is incredibly important that this incident be cleared up, because [the use of chemical weapons] would constitute a flagrant violation of international law.” Zapf says she will ask German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle to demand that the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is based in The Hague, launch an investigation into the case. According to the Jerusalem Post, the left-wing German lawmaker Andrej Hunko is also calling on Westerwelle to lodge a complaint against Ankara with the OPCW.

Die Tageszeitung notes that Westerwelle had been informed of the chemical weapons allegations before an official trip he made to Turkey in late July. But Westerwelle seems uninterested in following up on the claims, presumably because if they are found to be true, they would severely complicate Turkey’s relationship with the European Union. Westerwelle has been pushing for Turkey to become a full EU member, but allegations of more human rights abuses in Turkey would delay accession talks even more.

The Turkish army has refused to comment on the allegations, but the Turkish Foreign Ministry says that “Turkey is a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention, and its armed forces do not possess any biological or chemical weapons.” Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan says the allegations are “PKK propaganda.”

Since 1984, more than 40,000 people, mostly Kurds, have been killed in the conflict to achieve autonomy for Kurdistan. Turkish human rights groups and international medical organizations have long suspected that Ankara was using chemical weapons to suppress the PKK’s militant campaign.

[In 1988, the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq dropped poison gas on the Kurdish town of Halabja during the closing days of the Iran-Iraq War. That attack left around 5,000 dead and 11,000 injured, most of them Kurdish civilians.]

Meanwhile, the Italian daily Corriere della Sera reports that Turkey and Iran have signed a deal to supply weapons to the Lebanese Hezbollah. According to Corriere della Sera, Turkey’s top spymaster, Hakan Fidan, met with his Iranian counterpart, Hossein Taeb, to organize the dispatch of “sophisticated weapons, rockets and guns to Syria, to be forwarded to Lebanon,” where Iranian officers will monitor their delivery to Hezbollah.

The allegations come as Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak recently criticized Fidan’s appointment as the new head of Turkish intelligence. According to the Jerusalem Post, Barak told a closed Labor Party meeting in early August that “in recent weeks a man who is a supporter of Iran was appointed to head Turkey’s Mossad. There are a fair number of our secrets that are in [Turkish] hands. The thought that in the past two months they could have been open to the Iranians is quite disturbing.” Barak’s remarks prompted the Turkish Foreign Ministry to summon the Israeli ambassador in Ankara to lodge a complaint.

Apart from a handful of news outlets, the mainstream media in Europe and the United States have mostly ignored these allegations. Now imagine the MSM reaction if it were Israel that was being accused of using chemical weapons.