ISTANBUL // Police arrested dozens of Kurdish activists this week as the discovery of weapons and explosives raised fears of attacks by Kurdish militants during a spring festival.
Police searched apartments in Istanbul and other cities and detained the activists, including officials of Turkey's main Kurdish party, the Party for Peace and Democracy (BDP). A number of weapons and explosives were found, news reports said. According to a count by the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, an independent rights group, 75 people accused of supporting Kurdish militants were arrested between March 10 and Thursday. Another 15 people were arrested yesterday.
Kurdish politicians say the arrests are part of a campaign of intimidation against representatives of Turkey's estimated 12 million Kurds. As the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has shelved a programme of reforms aimed at solving the country's long-running Kurdish conflict politically, critics say these tensions could herald a phase of violence.
"People here are wondering whether a new war is about to start," said Devrim Baris Baran, a lawyer in Diyarbakir, Turkey's biggest Kurdish city.
In another sign of mounting tensions, police this week evacuated a group of 25 Kurdish construction workers from a building site in the western Turkish province of Kutahya. The evacuation came after a crowd of about 500 Turks tried to lynch the workers following a brawl between Kurds and Turks, news reports said. Officers smuggled the Kurds out of the danger zone by dressing them up in police uniforms.
The escalation came as Kurds in several cities gathered for the first rallies of the annual Newroz spring festival. Called Nowruz in Iran and Central Asia, the festival is celebrated on and around March 21.
In some cities of Turkey's Kurdish region, traditional Newroz bonfires were lit this week, news reports said. Mass rallies are scheduled in Istanbul, home to hundreds of thousands of Kurds, and the main Kurdish city of Diyarbakir tomorrow.
The Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a rebel group fighting for Kurdish self-rule and against the Turkish state since 1984, has called for a mass turnout during this year's festival.
"Newroz is a festival of resistance, unity and freedom," Murat Karayilan, the acting PKK leader, said this week. He said the rallies in Istanbul and in Diyarbakir were of special significance.
Mr Karayilan, who has been Turkey's public enemy number one since the arrest of PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan in 1999, said he wanted Kurds to attend Newroz rallies in bigger numbers than during last year's celebrations. But he rejected reports in Turkish media warning of PKK attacks during Newroz as "complete lies".
Turkish authorities are not so sure.
This week, police found 98 Molotov cocktails, allegedly prepared to be thrown during Newroz demonstrations, in the eastern Anatolian city of Van. Last week, 15 kilograms of plastic explosives often used by the PKK were discovered on the outskirts of Istanbul. On March 1, a bomb attack claimed by the PKK wounded 15 policemen and a civilian in Istanbul.
"The PKK wants to show it's still there," Mehmet Yegin, a terrorism analyst at the International Strategic Research Organisation, a think tank in Ankara, said. He said the PKK's support among ordinary Kurds was waning after PKK attacks killed civilians and as arrests of suspected PKK supporters weakened the militants' power in Kurdish cities, he said.
In Diyarbakir, Mr Baran, the lawyer who heads the human rights commission of city's bar association, said people in the city were concerned that Newroz could bring violence. "There is rising tension, a tense wait has begun."