|Police had banned Navroz celebrations until the Kurdish new year officially begins on Wednesday [AFP]|
Turkish police have used water cannons, tear gas and baton charges to break up Kurdish demonstrations across the country, leaving one local politician dead in a sign of rising tension ahead of the Kurdish new year of Navroz.
Several thousand people gathered just outside the city of Diyarbakir, in the southeast, and were confronted by hundreds of riot police backed by armoured cars and helicopters.
Television pictures showed a police water cannon vehicle driving towards a group of stone-throwing youths, spraying them as it went, while other officers fired tear gas.
Police had taken over strategic points in the city from the early morning and tried to prevent large crowds from coming together.
Haci Zengin, the head of an Istanbul branch office of the main Kurdish political party, Peace and Development, died after being hit on the head by a tear gas canister, party members posted on their Twitter accounts. Police said nine people were injured and 106 arrested.
The unrest spread to nearby areas and several cars were torched, the AFP news agency reported.
Protesters also threw firebombs, the Anatolia news agency reported, adding that a police officer suffered a broken arm and an elderly person was hit in the head with stones.
The Peace and Development Party (BDP) and the main armed movement, the illegal Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), have both called for large demonstrations on Navroz, which begins on March 21, sensing that the government, which has strongly backed Arab uprisings, may be vulnerable to pressure from street protests.
Both the legal BDP and the PKK are demanding a level of autonomy for the mainly Kurdish southeast of the country.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s conservative government has taken steps to increase cultural rights for the country’s Kurds, who make up about 20 per cent of the population, but has come out strongly against autonomy.
Turkish authorities had banned Navroz celebrations until March 21.
Still, tens of thousands of people gathered just outside Diyarbakir, waving Kurdish flags and holding up portraits of Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed PKK leader.
“Long live the leader Apo,” they chanted, referring to Ocalan’s nickname. “The PKK is the people, the people are here.”
Crowds set fire to at least four mobile telephone relay stations and ignited tyres in the streets. Fire is the traditional symbol of Navroz, originally a Zoroastrian festival. Thousands of people danced, cheered, leapt over fires and shouted slogans as columns of black smoke rose into the air.
The Kurdish protesters “have nothing to do with the Navroz celebrations,” Diyarbakir governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu told Anatolia. “What they want is to fight with the security forces … We won’t let them do that.”
Police in Istanbul, Turkey’s biggest city, which features a large Kurdish population, also moved in to break up a Navroz celebration just outside the city’s ancient city walls. Clashes broke out when police prevented two groups of more than 1,000 people coming together, Turkish media said.
Turkish prosecutors have this year arrested thousands of people across the country accused of sympathies with the PKK, which Turkey, the United States and the European Union recognise as a terrorist organisation.
More than 40,000 fighters, soldiers and civilians have been killed in the fighting since the PKK took up arms in 1984.
The bloodiest Navroz in Turkey occurred in 1992, when some 50 people were killed by security forces in the Kurdish-dominated southeast.