Death toll from Kurdish unrest in Turkey reaches 15 as the violent protests spread

ISTANBUL – The Kurdish riots that hit southeast Turkey spread to Istanbul over the weekend and the countrywide death toll from nearly a week of unrest climbed to 15 yesterday. Officials in Diyarbakir, the biggest city in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority southeast, said two men – one aged 78, the other 18 – wounded in the riots that began there last Tuesday died overnight at the Diyarbakir hospital. Three of the deaths occurred on Sunday night in Istanbul when someone from a group of about 100 masked demonstrators hurled a Molotov cocktail at a crowded city bus in the working-class neighborhood of Bagcilar. A panicked elderly woman who threw herself out of the burning vehicle was struck down and killed by a passing car and two more bodies were pulled out of the wreckage of the bus that later crashed into a truck, media reports said. A crowd of Bagcilar residents then took to the streets, chanting slogans against the armed separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), in support of whom the rioters had been demonstrating. Earlier Sunday, a group of about 200 sympathizers of the PKK – tagged a terrorist organization by Turkey, the European Union and the United States – clashed with riot police in Taksim Square, the heart of the shopping and entertainment district of Turkey’s biggest city. The demonstrators sought refuge in the nearby popular neighborhood of Dolapdere, whose inhabitants – mostly Roms – attacked them with knives, axes and sticks, chanting nationalist slogans. A 16th person died in an indirectly related incident in Istanbul’s middle-class Fatih district on Friday when a bomb went off in a crowded square in an attack claimed by the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK). Turkish officials say TAK is a front the PKK uses to hit soft civilian targets in a bid to avoid tarnishing its self-proclaimed image of a guerrilla army that combats only the army and police; the PKK says it is made up of renegade former PKK militants over whom it no longer has any control. The unrest in Istanbul followed the most violent demonstrations in a dozen years to erupt in Diyarbakir during the funeral of four of 14 PKK militants killed in armed clashes with the army. The violence spread to neighboring towns and provinces, claiming 12 lives, three of them children. The last person to die in the unrest in the mainly Kurdish-populated southeast was in Mardin province on Sunday night, the provincial governor said. The situation was calm yesterday in Diyarbakir, an AFP correspondent reported, but the unrest spreading to Istanbul, a sprawling city of more than 12 million and home to hundreds of thousands of often poor Kurdish immigrants, raised the specter among observers of interethnic violence. «The use by some anti-government parties of ethnic divisions as a political instrument could degenerate into violence,» warned Jean-Francois Perouse, a researcher with a French sociological institute based in Istanbul. He was referring to nationalist opposition parties strongly opposed to any political solution to Turkey’s Kurdish problem. Perouse added that Istanbul’s Kurdish community, the result of «forced immigration» sparked by violent fighting between the army and the PKK in southeast Turkey in the 1990s, is particularly violence-prone because «it has been economically and politically marginalized.» Most editorials in the Turkish media yesterday blamed the violence on the PKK, saying it was keeping tensions high to ensure its own survival.