Istanbul gun attack heightens violence fears ahead of local polls

ISTANBUL Tue Jan 28, 2014 5:23am EST

ISTANBUL Jan 28 (Reuters) - Unidentified assailants opened fire with rifles on the offices of a leading Istanbul mayoral candidate late on Monday, a day after a opposition party official was shot dead, raising concerns about violence ahead of March local elections.

No one was hurt in the attack in the affluent central district of Sisli, a city official said. Its mayor, Mustafa Sarigul, is running for the powerful post of mayor of greater Istanbul on the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) ticket.

On Sunday, an adviser to the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), another opposition party, was shot dead outside a campaign office in the Istanbul suburb of Esenyurt in a street clash the party blamed on supporters of Kurdish militants.

Local elections on March 30 are seen as a test of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's popularity after a graft probe implicated his government and following anti-government protests in Istanbul and the capital Ankara last summer.

The government has reassigned thousands of police officers as a result of the graft investigation, and MHP leader Devlet Bahceli said on Monday those changes may encourage violence.

Turkey has a history of political violence involving left- and right-wing groups, and the MHP blamed "separatists" for the attack, a word it usually applies to supporters of the Kurdish militant group the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Turkey and the PKK launched a peace process in 2012 with the aim of ending a conflict in the mainly Kurdish southeast which has killed more than 40,000 people in three decades. A ceasefire declared last year has largely held.

The MHP, which won just 5 percent in Istanbul's last local election in 2009, is fiercely opposed to the peace process. (Reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley and Daren Butler; Editing by Jon Boyle)