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Turkey on brink of civil war, warns leading Kurdish politician

Outraged nationalists are suspected of attacking the People's Democratic Party headquarters in Turkey's capital with rocks and fire. (Video: Reuters)

The leader of Turkey's main pro-Kurdish political party warned that the country was on the verge of full-blown civil war between state forces and militant Kurdish separatists. The remarks made by Selahattin Demirtas, co-chairman of the Peoples' Democratic Party, followed a worrying night of violence and firebombing in Turkey, with hundreds of reported attacks by nationalist mobs on offices belonging to Demirtas's party, known by the Turkish abbreviation HDP, as well as on ordinary Kurds.

The incidents were partially a reflection of simmering anti-Kurdish sentiment in a week that saw 29 Turkish security personnel get killed in the space of three days at the hands of suspected Kurdish PKK guerrillas. Since the resumption of hostilities earlier this summer between the Turkish state and the PKK, considered a terror organization by Washington and Ankara, more than 100 Turkish soldiers have reportedly died. Turkish airstrikes have pounded PKK positions in southeastern Turkey and across the border in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq.

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The conflict has claimed some 40,000 lives since it started in 1984. A cease-fire in 2013 led to a fragile peace. Elections in June saw Demirtas and the HDP clinch 14 percent of the vote and thereby prevent the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan from winning a parliamentary majority. But coalition talks failed, tensions with the PKK mounted, and Demirtas and his political allies will now have to do it all over again in elections scheduled for November.

That is, unless, things spiral further out of control.

"It is becoming impossible to hold an election given the security situation in the region," Demirtas said Wednesday, pinning the previous night of arson and violence on state forces. "We are facing a campaign of lynching." The HDP's party headquarters in Ankara, as well as hundreds of other posts across the country, appeared to be targeted in coordinated attacks.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmed Davutoglu, a key Erdogan ally, decried the chaos, which also included attacks on a number of offices belonging to newspapers that had fallen afoul of the AKP. "It is unacceptable to damage media institutions, political party buildings and the property of our civilian citizens," Davutoglu said.

Still, the embers are hot. A Turkish chief prosecutor has now opened proceedings to strip Demirtas of his political immunity on grounds that he has "incited" his supporters to retaliate against the nationalist protests.

On Thursday, Demirtas led a delegation on foot in an attempt to reach the "besieged" southeastern town of Cizre, which has been encircled and kept under curfew for the past week by the Turkish military, who have been carrying out "counter-terrorism" operations in the area for the past week. There are conflicting reports regarding casualties in the predominantly Kurdish town.

The HDP is a motley party of leftists, feminists, Kurds and other minority groups, which scored a historic electoral victory in June by appealing to both rural Kurdish voters in Turkey's southeast and urbane anti-Erdogan voters in the country's western cities. But critics of Demirtas and the HDP say it's a dressed-up version of the PKK itself -- a polarizing outfit that is reviled by most ordinary Turks yet still commands considerable sympathy among Turkey's Kurdish population, a minority that suffered decades of cultural repression at the hands of the Turkish state.

The HDP and other Erdogan opponents contend that the current political climate has been stoked by the demagogic Turkish president, who, stung by the election setback in June, is eager to put the predominantly Kurdish party back in its corner. It's unclear whether that strategy -- if it is a strategy at all -- is working. Polls do not currently indicate any gains in AKP support.

But it's also unclear whether the PKK's more hard-line elements, despite the entreaties of HDP politicians, will curb their violent insurgency. A PKK-affiliated issued a call on Thursday for "total resistance." Analysts point to a strong current of militant Kurdish nationalism among the region's youth, fanned in part by the success of Syrian Kurdish factions south of the border.

In the meantime, the euphoria of the HDP's election success earlier this year -- a historic moment that saw the Kurdish nationalist movement enter the Turkish political mainstream -- seems a distant memory.

In June, Ziya Pir, an HDP candidate from the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, spoke optimistically to WorldViews about the future.

“We want peace,” said Pir, who grew up in exile in Germany and whose uncle had been one of the founders of the PKK. He talked of plans to reform Turkey's constitution, which was imposed by a military junta in 1982. “We want a new constitution with freedoms for all individuals, where all cultures and religions can find themselves equally.”

Now, rather than dreaming of a new beginning, some are waiting for the next night of violence.