ISTANBUL // An eruption of violent street protests, the death of seven soldiers yesterday in the north, and a looming ban on Turkey's main Kurdish party are threatening to derail efforts to bring the country's long-running Kurdish conflict to a peaceful end.
Only a few weeks ago, politicians in Ankara said there was a chance to end Turkey's bloodiest conflict within a few months. Now, this aim seems hopelessly optimistic as tensions escalate. A leading Kurdish politician declared that the government's initiative to solve the Kurdish question was "over". The constitutional court in Ankara is today scheduled to start detailed deliberations about whether or not to ban the Party for a Democratic Society, or DTP, which sees itself as representing Turkey's 12 million Kurds. A court rapporteur has recommended shutting down the party, in a file prepared for the 11 judges, press reports say. At least seven judges have to support a ban for it to take effect. It is not clear when a verdict may be expected.
Many observers expect the court to dissolve the party, which refuses to distance itself from the Kurdistan Workers' Party. The PKK has been fighting Ankara since 1984 in a war for Kurdish autonomy that has cost more than 40,000 lives. In the trial, the DTP, which has 21 deputies in parliament in Ankara, is accused of being a front organisation of the PKK, which itself is regarded as a terrorist organisation by Ankara and the West.
The start of the critical phase of the DTP trial coincides with an escalation of violence, mainly in the Kurdish region in Anatolia, but also in Istanbul and Izmir. The seven soldiers were on patrol in a mountainous area of Tokat province when they came under fire from militants, the governor told Anatolia news agency. Last weekend, a 23-year-old student was killed by a bullet to his back during street protests that erupted after a DTP rally in Diyarbakir. Protesters had thrown stones and Molotov cocktails and set off fireworks, while police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowds. A reporter said he heard shots of live ammunition.
The demonstrations were triggered by reports that prison conditions for Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK founder and leader who has been jailed since 1999, have worsened since his transfer into a new cell block on the prison island of Imrali near Istanbul. Ocalan told his lawyers his new cell measured only 6.5 square metres and that he found it hard to get fresh air. He said it was "like being at the bottom of a well".
Ankara denied Ocalan's accusations. The justice ministry said his cell measured 11.81 sq m and that Ocalan was allowed to play table tennis with other inmates who were brought to Imrali to end his solitary confinement after complaints by the Council of Europe. While tens of thousands of DTP supporters took to the streets, there were also acts of anti-Kurdish violence. Unknown assailants opened fire on party members in a DTP building in Istanbul and attacked a building in Izmir with Molotov cocktails. No one was hurt in either attack. Tensions were further heightened after the death of a 17-year-old girl, badly burnt in an arson attack on a bus in Istanbul blamed on PKK supporters last month.
"For us, the Democratic Opening is over," Emine Ayna, a leading DTP official, said referring to the government plan, which centres on giving Kurds more language rights. The DTP had supported the plan, but now says it falls far short of what is needed. Ms Ayna told the Radikal newspaper that, given the expectation the DTP would be banned soon, its grassroots were calling on deputies to "take to the mountains" and join the PKK rebels.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, said his government would stick with its reforms. Speaking before he left for a visit to Washington, where he was scheduled to meet the US president yesterday, Mr Erdogan said that after his return he would tour the country to explain his plan to voters. Mr Erdogan said his government was determined to end the PKK's presence in northern Iraq and to dissolve the rebels' headquarters there. "Steps will be taken, whether it will be done within northern Iraq or whether [the PKK leadership] will be sent somewhere else," Mr Erdogan was quoted as saying by the Hurriyet newspaper. Hurriyet reported there were plans to send PKK leaders to Gulf countries.