As manhunts continue for military officers and others linked to the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ) in the aftermath of its bloody putsch attempt on July 15, a pattern has emerged in Gülenists' escape route. Two suspects captured over a week in two of Turkey's neighboring countries indicate that the fugitives are seeking shelter in areas controlled by the PKK.
Ekrem Beyaztaş, a prosecutor in the eastern province of Erzurum, was captured in the southern province of Kilis late Sunday as he was trying to sneak into Syria. Beyaztaş was among hundreds of prosecutors and judges wanted for links to the FETÖ, which is accused of conducting the July 15 putsch attempt that killed hundreds of civilians and security personnel. The Kilis governorate said Beyaztaş was trying to cross illegally into Syria, where a five-year-old war is ongoing, when he was captured by border troops. He was captured in an area opposite Afrin, a Syrian town controlled by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a PKK affiliate.
A Turkish official quoted in a Reuters story said: "Our initial assessment is that he was trying to reach PYD-controlled parts of northern Syria in an attempt to seek protection."
"In recent weeks, runaway coup plotters have been trying to leave Turkey via routes traditionally used by the PKK to smuggle militants and weapons in and out of the country," he added. Authorities did not confirm earlier reports that fleeing Gülenists sought shelter in the PKK-controlled areas, especially those in Northern Iraq.
A fugitive police chief who was being sought as part of investigations launched against the FETÖ who has been on the run since the July 15 coup attempt, was captured last week in a joint operation by Iraqi Kurdish and Turkish security forces in the Northern Iraqi town of Zaho. The Interior Ministry suspended Ahmet Duran Bitmez, who was assigned to the Batman Police Department in eastern Turkey, following the coup attempt. Bitmez was captured by security forces from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which governs Zaho and other cities in Iraqi Kurdistan, and was brought to Turkey. Turkish media outlets reported at the time that security forces suspected he escaped to northern Iraq to seek refuge in the camps of the PKK, members of which live in mountainous territory there. An intelligence officer speaking to Reuters said some members of the terror cult "have successfully reached Iraq and have been accompanied by PKK elements on the ground."
The PKK's links to Gülenists were exposed by a high-ranking officer implicated in the coup attempt. Lt. Col. İlkay Ateş, who admitted his association with Gülenists, claimed the FETÖ ordered him and other soldiers not to kill PKK members during anti-terror operations.
Ahmet Deniz, governor of Batman where Bitmez was assigned, told Anadolu Agency earlier this month that the PKK has been offering assistance and cooperation to members of the FETÖ, as evidenced in intercepted radio communications between PKK militants in the area.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said previously that Gülenists collaborate with the PKK and the PYD, asserting all terrorist organizations are the same.
"They are in joint action with the PKK, the PYD and DAESH. The next goal is the invasion [of Turkey]. We should see this," he said.
A manhunt is underway to capture fleeing Gülenists and those who live abroad. Several Gülenist prosecutors are believed to be in Europe, while FETÖ leader Fethullah Gülen lives in Pennsylvania in the United States. Gülen refuses to return to Turkey to stand trial and Ankara is trying to accelerate his extradition process from the U.S. Separately, more than two dozen diplomats, from military attaches to embassy officials, have been recalled to Turkey for investigations into their alleged links to Gülenists. Several remain on the lam.