BALIKESIR, Turkey (Reuters) – Turkey’s powerful generals rejected on Wednesday any blame for the deaths of 17 soldiers in a raid by Kurdish rebels, as rare public criticism of the army mounted following a series of attacks.
The armed forces, one the country’s most respected institutions and which sees itself as the main guardian of modern Turkey, have been virtually beyond criticism for years.
But its competence has been questioned in some media since attacks this month by the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which also piled pressure on the government to adopt more heavy-handed tactics.
Turkish media has reported the army had intelligence warnings before a PKK ambush on an outpost in Aktutun near the Iraqi border this month that killed 17 soldiers, the deadliest single attack on the military for more than a year.
General Ilker Basbug, chief of Turkey’s armed forces, denied the army had received any information beforehand and said it was conducting an investigation into the attack.
“Turkish Armed Forces have full self-confidence,” a visibly angry Basbug told a news conference, accompanied by the commanders of the land, air, sea and gendarmerie forces.
“An investigation has started and like any institution which has self-confidence we will make the results of that probe public,” said Basbug, who took command in August.
The military has also been criticized since Turkish media published photos of General Aydogan Babaoglu, the air force commander, playing golf at a Mediterranean resort while reports of the Aktutun attack emerged and funerals were held.
Some Turkish newspapers have dubbed Babaoglu the “golfing general,” and even Hurriyet, Turkey’s leading newspaper, has called his behavior unacceptable.
Basbug, who was in the western city of Balikesir during a military ceremony, said: “(Media) attacks of recent days do nothing but increase the determination of the Turkish Armed Forces.”
Turkey’s military has unseated four elected governments in the last 50 years and exerts vast influence behind the scenes.
But in recent years it has seen its influence diminish somewhat, due to reforms imposed by the European Union, which Turkey aspires to join.
The Aktutun attack again raised questions whether military might was enough to end the violence in impoverished, predominantly Kurdish southeast Turkey, which has long complained of discrimination and lack of investment.
Turkish officials on Tuesday met with senior Iraqi Kurdish leaders in Baghdad, including Masoud Barzani, president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, to discuss ways of curbing attacks by Iraq-based PKK rebels on Turkish security forces.
The Turkish government has in the past shunned direct contacts with Iraqi Kurdish leaders. The military and hard-line nationalists in Turkey dub Barzani a “supporter of terror.”
The PKK, which has a large presence in the mountains of northern Iraq from where they are accused of staging attacks inside Turkey, is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.