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Violence in Turkey’s Kurdish region raises questions about peace talks

Four weeks after the deadliest violence in decades swept Turkey’s Kurdish-dominated southeast, there’s little doubt who instigated the unrest that led to the deaths of innocent Kurdish civilians.

The riots in Diyarbakir – the unofficial capital of Kurds in Turkey – came after leaders in the region’s dominant political group, the People’s Democratic Party, called on followers to seize the streets and take immediate “action” to protest Turkey’s failure to aid the besieged Syrian Kurdish enclave of Kobani.

It’s also known that the victims of the violence had almost nothing to do with Kobani or the Islamic State extremists besieging it. They included four young men distributing charity food to the poor, who were murdered and mutilated, reputedly by members of the youth wing of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known as the PKK, a group with close ties to the People’s Democratic Party.

What isn’t so clear is whether President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s 2-year-old peace negotiations to end a 30-year-old Kurdish insurgency will survive or become another victim of passions spilling over from the war in neighboring Syria.

The stakes are high for Turkey, most of whose Kurds – some 15 million of the 78 million population – are eager for a normal life but want their language and cultural rights recognized in law. The stakes also are high for the government, which has risked enormous political capital on a peaceful outcome, and for the PKK, which desperately wants to be removed from the U.S. and Turkish terrorist lists.

Diyarbakir residents haven’t gotten over the shock of the killing of the four religious charity workers Oct. 7, as well as the deaths of nine others. In addition, at least 25 other civilians and two policemen in southeast Turkey died in the violence, which lasted several days. At least four of those were PKK members.

“I’ve been living here 50 years and never seen a day like this,” Mehmet Kaya, the president of the independent local Tigris Community Research Center, said of that day. “It was very widespread, very violent.”

In Diyarbakir alone, a city of 600,000, the rioters closed the main thoroughfares, attacked 34 schools, burned libraries, smashed bank and office building windows, and attacked seven ambulances, government officials said.

None of the 13 killed in Diyarbakir died at the hands of police, although police in other towns engaged in gun battles with what they said were armed protesters. A spokesman for Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party in Diyarbakir said police had avoided engaging the rioters so as not to disrupt the peace talks.

“What they feared was that by responding to the violence they would lay the groundwork” for Kurdish politicians to react with more violence, said Serif Aydin, the Justice and Development deputy chairman in Diyarbakir province.

Zubeyde Zumrut, the Diyarbakir chairwoman of the People’s Democratic Party, which controls most of the elected offices in the area and is close to the PKK, denies that her organization bears the responsibility for the violence that day. She said statements urging people to come to the streets, issued first by the party’s office in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, and then by the regional office, weren’t any different from previous calls for demonstrations to influence events.

“We are not telling them to come out and shoot and rape,” she said. “They came out unarmed. We are always encouraging people to engage in acts, such as street marches.”

Still, many here assert the language was incendiary. The national party’s statement Oct. 6 called for “all our people, from 7 to 70, to go out on the streets, seize open spaces and take action.” The next day, the PKK’s youth wing, the Patriotic Democratic Youth Movement, tweeted that members of Huda-Par, a Kurdish Islamist political party, should be “executed on sight.”

That is what happened in the Baglar district, one of the city’s poorest. A mob confronted five young men affiliated with Huda-Par who were distributing free meat to the poor on the Muslim Feast of the Sacrifice, which commemorates the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son at God’s behest. It’s a tale that the Quran and the Hebrew Bible share.

Yusuf Er, who was the sole survivor of the group distributing food, said the mob immediately fixated on the beards that four of the charity workers wore: Huda-Par, like Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, stresses Islamist values, while the PKK is avowedly secularist. “These people are ISIS,” he said the crowd shouted, using an abbreviation for the Islamic state.

Er said he and his friends tried to reason with the crowd, displaying the meat and the list of people they were to distribute it to, without success. Some in the crowd began to throw rocks. Er said he heard three shots.

The five fled to a nearby building and sought refuge in an apartment, but the mob followed and tried to break in. Er said he repeatedly called the police but that they refused to come. He called his father, who went to a police station but couldn’t convince the officers to act.

One of their pursuers went to the roof of the building and rappelled down a rope to enter the apartment, where he started shooting at Er’s friends. The assailant opened the door and let the mob in. Er escaped, but his four friends were shot and their bodies thrown off the balcony onto the street, where they were run over by vehicles, doused with gasoline and set alight.

Er, his arm bandaged and with bruises all over his body, seemed still in a state of shock when he told his story to McClatchy in a 90-minute interview at a Huda-Par office more than two weeks after the attack.

There have been no arrests yet, but the authorities say they know what happened.

“These are not deaths that occurred because of police intervention. These deaths occurred as a result of pro-PKK youth attacking a pro-Huda-Par group,” said Huseyin Aksoy, the provincial governor, who controls the security forces, told McClatchy.

Huda-Par, formerly known as Hizbullah – both names mean “party of God” – fought the PKK at the height of the Kurdish insurgency in the 1990s, and it was held responsible at the time for many unsolved killings. It has only a fraction of the vote of the People’s Democratic Party, but that’s because many of its supporters now vote for Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party.

Aksoy acknowledged that some critics of Huda-Par accuse the group of supporting the Islamic State. “But there is nothing to support the claim,” he said. Instead, he said, the violence is “an attempt to sabotage the peace process,” which features negotiations between the Turkish intelligence agency and the PKK’s jailed leader, Abdullah Ocalan.

Aksoy said the Turkish government was “definitely determined that the peace process should be maintained.”

Both sides agree that a full peace pact could be just months away, though the process appears to have slowed since the violence. PKK fighters reportedly fired rocket-propelled grenades at military guard posts in the southeastern province of Hakkari, near the border with Iraq. The Turkish air force responded, bombing Kurdish positions nearby. Then masked men assassinated three off-duty national police officers in the town of Yuksekova in Haqqari and an off-duty soldier in Diyarbakir in circumstances that resembled past PKK assaults.

Kobani, and Turkey’s hesitancy to help the Kurdish defenders there, remains a point of contention. On Saturday, thousands of Kurds staged marches in support of Kobani in Istanbul and Diyarbakir. There were no incidents, but the outpouring was a reminder of the passions in play.

Turkey views the Kurds in Kobani as an extension of the PKK and refuses to allow the PKK to send fighters and arms to Kurdish defenders there. It reluctantly allowed a small number of Iraqi peshmerga fighters to cross its territory to join the battle, but Erdogan inflamed Kurdish passions by repeatedly speaking of the group that administers Kobani as “terrorists . . . just like ISIS.” Turkey insists that the group that administers what the Kurds call Rojava in northern Syria cooperated with the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad and drove out other Kurdish political parties.

But the People’s Democratic Party, which dominates local elections in southeast Turkey, doesn’t see it that way.

“This government in Rojava is a model that can be applied throughout the Middle East,” said Zumrut, the provincial party chairwoman. Rojava, she said, is run “democratically”; if other Kurdish political parties no longer are active there, “it’s the people who have ended the role of the other parties.”

As for the deaths of the charity workers, Zumrut said her party couldn’t be blamed. “Were they really just distributing meat?” she asked. “What were the Huda-Par doing on the street?”

Er, meanwhile, said he was undaunted by the horror he’d seen and suffered. “We deliver free food like clockwork every year, at Ramadan and at the Feast of the Sacrifice,” he said. “We are going to continue doing what we have been doing.”