A Bulgarian government program of obliterating the special identity of that country's Turkish minority has led to "numerous deaths" among the population and reports of some deaths among government security agents, State Department officials said yesterday.
Reports of the Bulgarian campaign have prompted large-scale street demonstrations among angry Turks in Istanbul and brought at least two official protests to Bulgaria from the Turkish government.
A statement on the subject yesterday by Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, the first U.S. public declaration on what he called Bulgaria's "gunpoint program," reflected growing concern here.
The statement came in response to a Washington Post inquiry as Turkish Prime Minister Turgut Ozal arrived here last night on an official visit.
"We have reason to believe that several hundred members of the Turkish minority have been killed and more wounded" in the course of the campaign that began last year and reached a peak early this year, a State Department official said. "We also have reports that some security personnel have been killed and wounded, but we don't have specific numbers," he added.
Abrams, the State Department's senior human rights official, said in a statement that "the government of Bulgaria appears determined to denationalize ethnic and cultural distinctions of the 1-million-strong Turkish-speaking population inside its borders."
He said Bulgarian police and military have sought to coerce members of the Turkish minority "voluntarily" to give up their Turkish identity and adopt Slavic names.
"In some cases, troops supported by tanks have surrounded entire villages, transporting the inhabitants to central administrative centers for renaming. There are also reliable reports that some resisters have been summarily shot," Abrams said.
He added that all Bulgarian-supported Turkish-language radio broadcasts have ceased and that Turkish language newspapers are no longer published in the country.
The Bulgarian Embassy, in written comments provided to The Post, rejected reports of forced changes of names by "so-called Bulgarian Turks," calling the accounts "fabricated and ungrounded."
A statement originally issued in Sofia said that every citizen has the right to choose or change his name under Bulgarian law and that "voluntary change of names" does not damage lives or rights of those concerned.
Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Yalim Eralp said last week that Bulgaria has rejected both diplomatic notes about the treatment of Bulgarian Turks. Responding to the Bulgarian position, Eralp said his government's protest is "completely humanitarian" and "has nothing to do with intervening in another country's internal affairs."
He added, "These people, while they are Bulgarians, have the same blood as Turks. They are our kinsmen."
Some reports circulating in Moscow, which could not be confirmed here, indicated that at least 40 Bulgarian soldiers were killed in recent serious clashes with members of the Turkish minority. One report said two Bulgarian Politburo members had been called to the Soviet capital to discuss suppression of the Turks.
In mid-March, Turkish Prime Minister Ozal said Turkey was ready to accept all of the ethnic Turks residing in Bulgaria rather than have them face continued persecution.
Shortly thereafter, Dimitur Stanishev, secretary of the central committee of the ruling Bulgarian Communist Party, was quoted as saying, "There will be no emigration of Bulgarian citizens in Turkey."
Stanishev went on to say "we shall have no talks with any country about this" because Bulgarian citizens should not become "a bargaining chip" during "any negotiations and dealings."
State Department officials said the United States has raised the fate of the Turkish minority with Bulgaria on several occasions, without satisfaction from Sofia.
"The government of Bulgaria considers this denationalization campaign to be strictly an internal matter," Abrams said. "We cannot agree. Bulgaria's actions constitute a violation of the basic human rights of the Turkish minority."
Abrams said the adminstration would continue to discuss the matter with Bulgaria in bilateral contacts and seek to focus international attention on "this serious problem."