Kurdish legislators push for autonomy in Turkey

September 4, 2011 - 4:55 PM

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Kurdish legislators vowed Sunday to press on with a boycott of Turkey's parliament and backed a recent declaration of autonomy in the country's Kurd-dominated southeast. The defiant stances came as Kurdish rebels killed six people while military airstrikes targeted their hideouts.

The developments underscored the challenge facing the Islamist-oriented government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in dealing with the Kurds, even as it has taken some steps to improve relations with the long-marginalized ethnic group that makes up some 20 percent of Turkey's 74 million people.

The European Union, which Turkey is striving to join, has pushed Erdogan's government to grant more rights to the Kurds. But EU countries also have urged Kurdish lawmakers to distance themselves from the rebel Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which is considered a terrorist group by the U.S. and the EU.

The PKK has been fighting for autonomy in the southeast since 1984 and keeps bases in northern Iraq. In July, Kurdish lawmakers and leading activists declared autonomy for that region of Turkey.

During a convention Sunday for the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party in Ankara, Kurdish legislators complained that the government has made little headway toward resolving the conflict, which has killed tens of thousands of people, and granting Kurds more political and cultural rights.

The Kurdish legislators were elected in June, but they have pledged not to take an oath of office until five pro-Kurdish legislators held on charges of rebel ties are freed. They also have insisted that another Kurdish politician, Hatip Dicle, whose election was canceled due to a conviction for rebel links, be allowed to take office.

"Democratic conditions were not ripe enough" to end the boycott, said Selahattin Demirtas, a leading member of the Peace and Democracy Party. Parliament is in recess until October.

Another legislator, Gulten Kisanak, said the government should meet the demands for autonomy and allowing Kurdish-language education in schools.

"The right to education in the mother tongue must be recognized as a constitutional right," the pro-Kurdish Firat news agency quoted Kisanak as saying.

The Turkish government recently took steps toward wider Kurdish-language education by allowing Kurdish-language institutes and private Kurdish courses as well as Kurdish-language television broadcasts.

But the government refuses to allow lower-level education in Kurdish, fearing that it could divide the country along ethnic lines. It also regards the declaration of autonomy as a separatist move and rules out any concessions on the country's unity.

In recent weeks, the Turkish military has carried out airstrikes against suspected Kurdish hideouts in northern Iraq following a series of rebel attacks that killed dozens of soldiers. As many as 160 guerrillas were believed to have been killed in artillery fire and airstrikes as of Aug. 22, the military said.

On Sunday, Turkish warplanes hit suspected Kurdish rebel bases around northern Iraq's Choman village. Its mayor, Abdul-Wahid Gwani, confirmed the strikes but did not have any information on casualties. Iraq's Kurd-dominated north has a relatively high degree of autonomy.

Kurdish rebels kept up their attacks over the weekend.

On Sunday, the insurgents killed two village guards who fight alongside Turkish troops against the guerrillas, said Gov. Muammer Turker of the southeastern Hakkari province. Four other village guards were wounded.

On Sunday evening, the rebels opened fire on policemen who were playing soccer in the eastern city of Tunceli, killing one policeman and his wife, who was a spectator at the game, the state-run Anatolia news agency said, citing Gov. Mustafa Taskesen.

Eight policemen were wounded in the attack and three of them were reported to be in serious condition, Anatolia said.

One of the attackers was killed in the ensuing clash, Taskesen said.

It was the second rebel attack in Tunceli in as many days and came weeks after the government announced plans to deploy elite policemen to help the troops in the rugged southeast.

On Saturday, rebels killed two soldiers during an attack on a military patrol there, according to the governor's office in Tunceli province.

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Associated Press writer Yahya Barzanji in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq contributed to this report.