Tensions Rise in Turkey's Kurdish Southeast

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 1, 2006

DIYARBAKIR, Turkey, March 31 -- The death by stray bullet of a 3-year-old boy Friday brought to seven the number of fatalities in the deadliest week of urban unrest to roil Turkey's Kurdish-populated southeast in more than a decade.

The slaying in Batman, 50 miles to the east, followed three days of riots in Diyarbakir, the largest city in a region that had been slowly recovering from 20 years of guerrilla conflict. The fighting, which resumed sporadically two years ago after a pause of five years, takes place largely in remote mountains where Turkish soldiers engage lightly armed Kurdish guerrillas.

But the politics of the conflict play out on the streets of this city, still swollen by refugees from Kurdish villages emptied by fear or bulldozed by a Turkish government intent on depriving guerrillas of any haven. On Friday, interviews with Kurds appeared to reflect a community divided on how to move forward.

In the vibrant center of Diyarbakir, merchants whose shop windows were shattered by rampaging protesters warned that the riots threatened to undo halting progress toward the prosperity that people in Turkey's southeast have long complained of lacking.

"We're not only talking about a loss of three days," said Nedim Koca, manager of Koton, a trendy clothing store damaged in the protests. "Diyarbakir probably lost a couple of years this week."

But on a corner of the city's Baglar district, where displaced families of 20 and more sometimes share an apartment, young men perched on curbs as darkness gathered said the outburst flared from frustration born of continuing discrimination.

"In the last 20 years, nothing on this scale has happened before," said Ali Kaycan, 22, who owns a photography studio. "So there was 20 years to find a solution here. But nothing happened."

The fuse was lit last Saturday, residents said, when Turkish forces killed 14 guerrillas from the Kurdistan Workers Party, known by the Kurdish initials PKK. The group, condemned as a terrorist organization by the State Department and European Union, enjoys support from many Kurds, and the funerals of its fighters routinely double as rallies.

The burials in Diyarbakir on Monday morning were especially tense. A Kurdish satellite television station beamed from Denmark, Roj TV, had called for local businesses to close down out of respect. Militant Kurdish Internet sites said Turkish forces had used chemical weapons. The assertion was unsubstantiated and denied by Turkish officials. But it nonetheless resonated with Kurds, who remembered the chemical attacks that killed 5,000 Iraqi Kurds in the Iraqi village of Halabja 18 years ago.

"They used Saddam Hussein's tactics," said Abdullah Sarigul, 20.

Amid chants of "Revenge! Revenge!" the funeral rally of perhaps 10,000 spiraled into a riot, according to witnesses. Two police stations were pelted with stones, as were shops that remained open. Security forces moved in with riot shields and armored vehicles. Three people were killed.

When they were buried on Wednesday, the funerals degenerated into riots as well. A boy of 6 was fatally shot in the chest. The child was buried Friday -- before dawn, at the urging of authorities hoping to break the cycle of violence.

"I guess it's about the funerals," said Osman Celik, 63, in the fruit shop he had opened, tentatively, at midday after Friday prayers. "Some people got killed somewhere. Some others got killed here, and it all got mixed up."

Across the city, an uneasy calm prevailed on streets swept clean of most of the rubble youths had hurled at riot police earlier in the week. Although protests flared in Batman and at least one other largely Kurdish city, Diyarbakir appeared under the control of green-uniformed gendarme troops in plastic chest protectors and helmets.

They clustered in groups of 20 and more on corners, reinforcing police stations made conspicuous by the riot shields and helmets lying in rows outside their front doors, at the ready.

Residents said it was the first time in living memory that federal troops, which normally engage guerrillas in the countryside, had deployed in force in the city.

Senior elected officials, who had attempted to shift the "Kurdish problem" from a law and order question to a challenge of democratization, took a tough public line.

"Weakness in the struggle against terrorism is out of the question," Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul told a television interviewer.

"If they are expecting us to bargain, they are waiting in vain," said Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, apparently referring to the PKK, which promotes an independent Kurdish republic. "We have not won this country, this flag, this independence and republic easily. Nobody should make wrong assessments."

On the curb in Baglar, the young men said they wanted to remain a part of Turkey but that ethnic Turks seldom made them feel welcome. The long-held public equation of asserting Kurdish rights with terrorism has taken a toll, they said.

"As a Kurdish person I cannot knock on any door and ask for bread in Turkey. Whereas if they come here they would see we could share whatever we have," Kaycan said. "I went to a lot of other cities. I ask what time it is, and I can't get a reply because I'm from Diyarbakir."

"We only have each other here, so we support each other," said Abdullah Sarigul, 20. "Since we don't have any expectation from the other side, we rely on one another."

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