Fri, Mar 23, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Violence mars Kurdish festival

SECURITY Authorities, armed with water cannons, were determined to keep order for the event, which was used to show support for jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan

AFP , MERSIN, TURKEY

Kurdish women wave traditional scarves and chant slogans during celebrations marking the Kurdish New Year `Noruz' in Istanbul, Turkey, on Wednesday.

PHOTO: AFP

Tens of thousands of Kurds marked their biggest festival, Newroz, on Wednesday with celebrations across Turkey marred by sporadic violence and clashes between police and militants.

The authorities beefed up security for the event, which has been mired in bloodshed in the past. Several dozen people were detained for displaying support for Kurdish separatists fighting the government.

In the Mediterranean port of Mersin, home to a particularly militant community of migrant Kurds, police used water cannons and tear gas to disperse some 1,000 youths who demonstrated support for jailed Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan.

"Without Ocalan we will bring the world down on your head," they chanted, in a reference to allegations that the leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) is being poisoned in prison.

At least 20 protesters were detained and several people injured, a photographer said.

Late in the evening, Kurdish militants hurled a Molotov cocktail at a bus in the western city of Izmir, setting the vehicle ablaze, Anatolia news agency reported. The police responded with pepper gas and detained 22 people.

Two buses were pelted with sticks and stones in Istanbul and several passengers were injured by broken glass, Anatolia said.

Newroz Day, which marks the arrival of spring and the Kurdish New Year, has become a platform for Turkey's Kurdish minority to demand greater freedoms or voice support for the PKK.

The group has waged a bloody separatist campaign in the mainly Kurdish southeast since 1984 and is listed as a terrorist group by Ankara and much of the international community.

The largest crowd -- about 100,000 people -- gathered in Diyarbakir, the main city of the southeast, where militant revellers chanted pro-PKK slogans.

Three women were slightly injured when demonstrators stoned the police and the security forces fired warning shots in the air, Anatolia said.

In Istanbul, 50,000 people attended the festivities, lighting traditional bonfires and dancing to Kurdish folk music.

"Real democracy or nothing," they shouted, while a group of youths unfurled a giant portrait of Ocalan before police intervened to take it down.

The festivities were organized by Turkey's main Kurdish political movement, the Democratic Society Party, whose members have in recent weeks become increasingly targeted by judicial action over charges of backing the PKK.

In Ankara, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan appealed for peace and unity at official Newroz ceremonies, held in a bid to prevent the day from being monopolized by Kurdish militants.

"Let the seeds of hatred and hostility burn in the bonfires," Erdogan said.

He then lit a bonfire and several ministers jumped over it.

Newroz is also celebrated in Iran and other Muslim communities in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Celebrations in Turkey have been relatively calm in recent years, but police in Istanbul and nearby Kocaeli last week detained 12 suspected Kurdish rebels in possession of 11.7km of plastic explosives, reportedly intended for bomb attacks at Newroz.

The run-up to the festival was also marred by accusations by Ocalan's lawyers that the PKK leader, whom many Kurds see as a freedom fighter, is being gradually poisoned with toxic substances in the prison island of Imrali, where he is the sole inmate. Ankara has denied the claims.

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