Turkey's Kurdish TV channel opens to mixed reviews

(Updates with Kurdish at university)

DIYARBAKIR, Turkey, Jan 2 (Reuters) - Turkey has launched its first 24-hour Kurdish-language TV station in what the government called a democratic new era for minority Kurds.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan extended best wishes in once-banned Kurdish, but some Kurdish politicians criticised the New Year launch of state-run TRT 6 as a ploy to woo voters ahead of March local elections.

Some viewers were concerned that programming would become state propaganda, underscoring scepticism in a region scarred by decades of violence and poverty.

Turkey, which aspires to join the European Union, has been under pressure to expand cultural and political rights of its estimated 12 million Kurds, a sixth of the population.

Kurdish was banned following a 1980 military coup until 1991. Under pressure from the EU, TRT began broadcasting documentaries and news in Kurdish in 2004, but only for about 30 minutes each week. TRT 6 will be broadcast for 24 hours a day.

In a separate move, the head of Turkey's higher education authority told CNN Turk on Friday it planned to open Kurdish language and literature departments in Istanbul University and Ankara University in 2010.

Analysts have said solving the Kurdish problem required political reforms to drain support for the PKK separatist group. The army has stepped up operations against PKK rebels in Iraq.

"The launch of TRT 6 is important for the development of the Kurdish language. I remember when even listening to Kurdish music was a crime," said Ahmet Cihan, a 29-year old shopkeeper in Diyarbakir, the largest city in the Kurdish southeast.

Officials said the station will air news, films, soaps and talk shows, as well as video clips by Kurdish artists.

"If the aim of the channel is propaganda then the government will lose, but if it pursues an independent policy then people will watch it. If it is not impartial Kurds would feel deceived," said Cemil Genc, a 32-year-old self-employed man.

Erdogan, whose ruling AK Party is hoping to make strong inroads in the Kurdish southeast in March local elections, said the channel will help Kurds feel more included in Turkey.

"This is a step which will strengthen our democracy," Erdogan said in a pre-recorded message in which he uttered: "TRT ses bi xer be" (Best wishes to TRT 6) in Kurdish.

Selahattin Demirtas, an MP for the Democratic Society Party (DTP), the largest Kurdish party, said the channel had political aims. The DTP and AKP have traded bitter words as polls near.

"Even the singers invited to the opening ceremony were chosen because they are DTP opponents," Demirtas said.

Despite some progress, the use of the Kurdish language is still banned in parliament and in political campaigning.

According to media reports, DTP lawmakers are working on a draft law to allow the use of q, w and x -- letters used in Kurdish but not in Turkish -- in official correspondence, a move which would incur the wrath of nationalists. (Reporting by Ibon Villelabeitia; Editing by Diana Abdallah)