Turkey: A long history of chemical weapons use against the Kurds

Spiegel Online reports that German experts have confirmed the authenticity of photographs given to a German human rights delegation, showing eight PKK members thought to have been killed in September 2009 by chemical agents.

Turkey has long been suspected of using chemical weapons against Kurdish fighters, both in Turkey and in Iraq, with accusations going back more than 20 years. Why is there so much scepticism regarding these accusations when there is a preponderance of evidence to the contrary?

Gisela Penteker, a Turkey expert with the international medical organisation International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War said though that ‘[f]inding proof is difficult…because bodies were often released so late that it was hardly possible to carry out a thorough autopsy.’

Christopher Milroy, a professor of forensic pathology in the UK, went to the Kurdish region of Turkey in the early nineties to investigate use of chemical weapons. The Kurdish Human Rights Project (KHRP) had received information that Turkish security forces used chemical weapons or napalm against members of the PKK. At the KHRP’s request, Milroy went to the area to conduct postmortem examinations to determine the truth of the allegations. His descriptions by family members of the victims are very similar to what was portrayed in Spiegel Online’s article.

Here is an excerpt from an article he published, A secret and dirty war, in the British Medical Journal from July 1994:

The Turkish authorities refused permission to examine the area where the alleged use of napalm took place. The area had been sealed off and the bodies of the victims had been buried in a mass grave, which had subsequently been concreted over. Nevertheless, a few relatives had been able to identify the victims from clothing or distinct features and removed the bodies for proper Islamic burial. All the bodies were described as severely burnt, without bullet wounds. We believed that the examination of the bodies would probably be obstructed, but hoped to interview relatives to obtain descriptions of the injuries. In Ankara we met human rights workers and then travelled to Kurdistan. We had already been told that arrest warrants had been issued against doctors, lawyers, and other human rights workers who had intended to accompany us.

After a couple paragraphs describing how he and his team were harassed by police and security forces, Milroy continues with his accounts of interviews with family members.

The next day we drove to Adiyaman, where we interviewed another relative of one of the victims. His description was again of bodies so charred that there were no recognisable features to permit a visual identification. No bullet wounds were present. While we were talking to him we were told that a man who was going to try and collect samples from the bodies in a local village had been arrested by the Turkish authorities, along with his entire family. The last information I received was that they were still in prison.

Because of the harassment we were unable to conduct the examinations, though the descriptions given were consistent with the use of napalm. A case has been presented before the European Commission of Human Rights.

Based on Milroy’s description and what little information was published in the Spiegel Online’s article, one can assume that either napalm or white phosphorous were used. Both agents cause severe burning, often to the bone. If you want to see what the effects of white phosphorus are, see this photo.

In 1999 a ZDF (Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen, a German public-service television station) television report alleged chemical weapons use against the PKK, citing an unnamed member of a Turkish military special unit. ZDF said that in May of that year, a Turkish source told them he had taken part in operations against the PKK in which an unidentified chemical weapon had been used against insurgents hiding in caves.

‘Everyone in there was gassed—it was absolutely certain that nobody survived,’ said the Turkish military source as quoted by ZDF. Amnesty International, which was called in by ZDF to evaluate the military source, described him as ‘all-around credible.’

German Defence Ministry spokesperson at the time, Dieter Puhl, called the report ‘totally false and misleading.’ It is important to note that during that time period, the German government was supplying Turkey with chemical weapons test laboratories. The Defence Ministry said the labs would serve only to ‘protect soldiers and the civilian population.’

But there was condemnation of the deal from opposition parties. Ulla Jelpke, a member of parliament for the Party of Democratic Socialism, said that ‘[c]laiming that the chemical weapons and materials delivered serve only for the defence of Turkey and its civilian population is barefaced cheek.’

In October 1999, Turkish Foreign Ministry deputy spokesperson, Sermet Atacanli, referring to the ZDF programme, said that ‘Turkey assumed the obligation not to develop, produce, store, or use chemical weapons, and meticulously abides by the relevant agreement.’

In August of 2000, Turkish military forces entered what was then called the ‘Northern NFZ’. The northern no-fly zone extended up from the 36th parallel and formed what was supposed to be a protected zone for the Kurdish population there. In the course of the air raids on 15 and 17 August chemical weapons and napalm were allegedly used. Ankara’s official line was that the raids were directed exclusively at PKK targets. Regardless of the official line, many civilians, including women and children, were killed.

Turkish helicopter bombardment

This was an area designated for the ‘protection of the Kurdish civilian population in the north of Iraq.’ Yet the US Embassy in Ankara did not condemn the attack. A spokesperson said: ‘There is information in the reports concerning the use of chemical weapons. But I will not appraise the incident or give detailed information.’ The information he did give was: ‘The US in general defends the rights of the Turkish government against PKK terrorists in northern Iraq.’ How can you defend the use of chemical weapons?

In 2006 14 members of the PKK were killed in a large-scale offensive by the Turkish army after Newroz. Chemical weapons use was suspected in the operation. Subsequently, protests erupted following the funeral for the 14 PKK members. Days of violence ensued in Diyarbakir and nearby cities and towns.

In August 2007 the DTP reported that chemical weapons were used against a group of 11 PKK fighters in Şirnex.

In December 2007 the Turkish Armed Forces bombarded an area in the Qandil mountains. Shortly thereafter almost 200 goats died after grazing in the area where the bombardment took place. A detailed lab analysis of the goat milk detected poison.

A March 2008 report in the Kurdish Globe again mentions chemical weapons use in the Qandil mountain area. Several PKK fighters were seriously wounded by ‘weapons mixed with chemicals; blood flowed from their ears, eyes, and noses.’ These symptoms are not indicative of the napalm or WP that was most likely used in other attacks, but were nonetheless a direct result of illegal toxins used by the Turkish military.

Preliminary examinations by the Kurdistan Ministry of the Environment showed that Turkey used banned weapons. A delegation from Iraq’s council of representatives also declared that Turkish troops had used chemical weapons.

The Kurdistan Ministry of Health organised a medical team to investigate the affected locations and victims’ health. Some affected families were taken to Hewlêr for further medical testing.

Excerpts from secret security directive (click for larger image)

One important question is whether or not there is an official sanction by the Turkish government to use chemical and/or biological weapons in its counter-terrorism efforts.

On 23 July 1989, the Turkish newspaper İkibine Doğru published an article on chemical weapons use. The article spoke of a secret security directive by the Turkish Armed Forces permitting the use of such agents as part of the government effort to combat Kurdish fighters.

According to the directive, which was issued on 25 February 1986 and signed by Necdet Öztorun, who was at the time commander of the Turkish Army, various methods were deemed permissible to destroy tunnels, including: filling the tunnels with poison gas, and rendering them unusable by introducing a specially bred poisonous insects.

In another section of the directive, it makes mention of the permitted use of gas bombs and NBC (nuclear, biological, and chemical) weapons, such as fire making substances, and tear and emetic gas.

The Turkish government did not explicitly deny the existence of the directive, however, questions remain as to its authenticity.

Regardless of whether or not the directive is authentic, there is overwhelming evidence (though some will insist that it is only circumstantial) that the Turkish government and its armed forces routinely use chemical weapons against the PKK and Kurdish civilians. They have been doing it for decades and will continue to do so with impunity.  The above examples are only a partial account of what has been happening.

So why is no one mounting a full-scale investigation of these atrocities? Perhaps the Spiegel Online story will spark some response. It is doubtful however that it will come from the Europeans or the Americans.

Does no one care that a member of NATO, a country that is seeking admission to the EU, is flagrantly violating international law within its borders and beyond? With chemical weapons! Has the ‘global war on terror’ become no more than a licence to kill for governments in Washington’s exclusive terror club? Apparently, and sadly, so.

Sources:

Kurdish radio invites reporters to see victims of Turkey’s chemical attack. IRNA News Agency, 21 May 1999. BBC Summary of World Broadcasts.

Chemical weapons test lab for Turkey from German military. Deutsche Presse-Agentur, 27 October 1999.

Turkish spokesman denies manufacture, use of chemical weapons. Anatolia news agency, 28 October 1999. Supplied by BBC Worldwide Monitoring.

Leicht, Justus. Turkish army kills Kurdish civilians in north Iraq. World Socialist Web Site, 30 August 2000.

Milroy, CM. A secret and dirty war. BMJ 1994;309:135 (9 July).

A Survey of Biological and Biochemical Weapons Related Research Activities in Turkey. The Sunshine Project, Country Study No. 3, 08 December 2004.

Turkey denies use of chemical weapons in operations against ‘terrorists’. Supplied by BBC Worldwide Monitoring. 30 March 2006.

Leicht, Justus. Turkey: Twelve dead and hundreds injured in Kurdish protests. Bella Ciao, 07 April 2006

Turkish Kurdish party accuses Turkey of using chemical weapons. Aso, 29 November 2006. Supplied by BBC Worldwide Monitoring.

Pro-Kurdish party says army used chemical weapons in fighting Kurds. Supplied by BBC Worldwide Monitoring, 30 August 2007.

Suspected chemical weapons used in Turkish incursions. The Kurdish Globe, 01 March 2008.

Suspicion of Chemical Weapons in Turkish Bombardment. Rastî Blog, 02 April 2008.

Steinvorth, Daniel and Yassin Musharbash. Turkey Accused of Using Chemical Weapons against PKK. Spiegel Online, 12 August 2010.

5 thoughts on “Turkey: A long history of chemical weapons use against the Kurds

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Turkey: A long history of chemical weapons use against the Kurds « KURDISTAN COMMENTARY -- Topsy.com

  2. thank you KB for the insightful article.

    when the ‘super powers’ run out of a natural resource Kurds in SE turkey are sitting on, or perhaps when Ankara misbehaves itself, then these ‘superpowers’ can help ‘liberate’ these oppressed people and it’s ‘liberation army’. to ignore and even support the use of chemical weapons against a group who are not half as capable to defend themselves.. shame on the international community.

  3. Glad you enjoyed the article. But what do you mean by ‘when Ankara misbehaves’? That’s been going on forever and not a single government is lifting a finger to help the Kurds. Yes, shame on the international community. But ‘shame’ maybe is not a strong enough word.

  4. Now KB, I really don’t know where you have gotten your hands on these detailed information, but they are excellent, thank for sharing.

    Indeed, “shame” is not enough, a century of persecution, oppression, suppression and total annihilation policy practiced by present-day Turkey on Kurds infront of the world, and none, NONE, have criticized Turkey for those crimes……

  5. Dear Corduene, All my sources are listed at the bottom of the article. All are available online. Finding them, though, does require time and patience. KB

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