The United States on Monday sought to defuse a diplomatic row with NATO ally Turkey by saying it now accepts Ankara’s claim that outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorists had executed 13 Turks in Iraq, Agence France-Presse reported.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had lashed out at the State Department’s initial hesitance to blame the PKK for the deaths.
Both sides view the PKK as a terrorist organization, but the US also backs a Kurdish militia in neighboring Syria in the conflict against President Bashar al-Assad.
Ankara on Sunday accused the PKK of executing the hostages — most of them soldiers and police abducted in Turkey and kept in a cave — as Turkish forces advanced in a rescue operation launched last week.
The PKK blamed Turkish air strikes for the deaths.
The US State Department then fueled Turkish ire by saying on Sunday that Washington “deplores the death of Turkish citizens” but was waiting for further confirmation of Ankara’s version of events.
Erdoğan then branded Washington’s response “a farce.”
“You said you did not support terrorists, when in fact you are on their side and behind them,” he said in televised remarks.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry later summoned US Ambassador David Satterfield to convey Ankara’s displeasure “in the strongest possible terms.”
Washington issued a new statement after Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu had his first official phone call on Monday with Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
“The Secretary expressed condolences for the deaths of Turkish hostages in northern Iraq and affirmed our view that PKK terrorists bear responsibility,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
PKK militants have been waging a war against the Turkish state since 1984 that is thought to have left tens of thousands of dead.
A breakdown in peace talks between the PKK and Ankara in 2015 was followed by Turkish military campaigns against the militants across the region and mass arrests of pro-Kurdish politicians and officials in Turkey.
The Turkish Interior Ministry said on Monday that it had detained 718 people — including officials of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) — across the country in a series of coordinated raids.
The HDP is Turkey’s second-largest opposition party. It denies all formal links to the PKK but also questions Turkey’s account of the 13 deaths.
We “express our deepest regret and condolences to the families and loved ones of those 13 people who by no means were capable of protecting themselves against an armed attack,” the HDP said in a statement on Sunday.
The incident threatens to escalate tensions across Iraq and Syria while delivering an early test to Erdoğan’s relations with Biden.
Turkey has long accused the Iraqi government of being too tolerant of the PKK.
Ankara also wants Washington to renounce the Kurdish militia in Syria because of its alleged links to the PKK.
It instead wants Washington to reaffirm its support for Turkey’s anti-terror campaign.
Erdoğan said Turkey’s NATO allies had to pick sides.
“If we are going to be in NATO together, you should be sincere. You should not be on the terrorists’ side,” Erdoğan said.
“After this, there are two options. Either act with Turkey with no ifs, ands or buts, without questioning, or they will be a partner to every murder and all bloodshed,” he said.
“The terrorist organization on our doorstep, on our borders, is killing innocents.”
Erdoğan is still waiting for a phone call from new US President Joe Biden that could help set the tone for future US-Turkish ties.