Thousands of Kurds have demonstrated in towns across southeast Turkey, some clashing violently with riot police as they called for the release of Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan on the 15th anniversary of his capture.
In the Kurdish-majority city of Diyarbakir, about 100 protesters hurled stones and Molotov cocktails at police, who in turn fired tear gas and water cannons on Saturday.
Shops kept their shutters lowered in a sign of protest and thousands took to the streets holding up recent photographs of their jailed leader, Reuters news agency reported.
“The PKK is the people and the people are here,” they chanted.
Ocalan, leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), has been serving a life sentence in a high-security prison on an island off Istanbul since 1999.
He is viewed by nationalist Turks as responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people in the group’s 30-year war with the Turkish army.
But for many of Turkey’s estimated 15 million Kurds, the 64-year-old represents their bitter struggle for greater cultural and political rights.
In February 1999, Turkish authorities arrested Ocalan in Nairobi and swiftly sentenced him to death for treason. The sentence was commuted to life imprisonment when Turkey abolished the death penalty in 2002.
Protests were also held on Saturday in other cities in Turkey’s southeast, with police often intervening to disperse the groups.
In Cizre, an impoverished town on the banks of the Tigris near the Iraqi border, protesters threw petrol bombs at armoured vehicles and police, who reacted by firing tear gas. There were also protests in Batman and Sirnak.
A major demonstration also took place in the French city of Strasbourg, with 30,000 protesters taking part according to organisers although police said the number was closer to 9,000, the AFP news agency reported.
The Turkish government launched talks with Ocalan in late 2012. The PKK, which is designated as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the United States and the European Union, subsequently declared a ceasefire and began withdrawing from Turkey to camps in northern Iraq where they are based.
But the PKK said it had halted its withdrawal in September due to frustration with the government’s pace in introducing democratic reforms meant to address Kurdish grievances.
Turkey’s effort to make peace with the PKK has been given a sense of urgency by Syria’s almost three-year civil war in which Kurds have made major territorial gains, paving the way for their long-declared plans for independent governance in parts of Syria just over Turkey’s southern border.