DIYARBAKIR, Turkey (Reuters) - Kurdish lawmaker Musa Farisogullari says he has been targeted by water cannon, tear gas and blows from riot shields while trying to protest this month against Turkey’s military offensive in northeast Syria.
The incursion, targeting the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, has deepened a sense of alienation among people in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast, which is being further fueled by a crackdown on the country’s main pro-Kurdish party.
Dozens of people have been arrested and mayors ousted in anti-terrorism investigations since the operation began on Oct. 9, while police have prevented public statements by officials of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), including Farisogullari.
“Oppression of our people has reached the point where even stepping outside to make the most democratic reaction faces a very harsh response,” he said in the HDP building in the largest southeastern city Diyarbakir, as dozens of police stood outside.
The HDP is the only party in Turkey’s parliament to oppose the offensive, and Farisogullari said locals he spoke to had expressed solidarity with Syria’s Kurds.
“They are our brothers. Kurds are suffering in this,” said Mehmet Kesim, an unemployed man sitting in a tea house in Diyarbakir, 100 km (62 miles) north of the Syrian border.
Turkey agreed under a deal clinched with Russia on Tuesday to halt its offensive here Russian military police and Syrian border guards will start removing the YPG 30 km (19 miles) from the Turkish border on Wednesday and next week Russian and Turkish forces will launch joint patrols in a narrower, 10 km "safe zone" Ankara has long sought in northeast Syria.
Ankara views the YPG as terrorists because of their links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a 35-year insurgency in southeast Turkey, in which more than 40,000 people have died.
Turkey also accuses the HDP of close links to the PKK. The HDP, the second biggest opposition party in parliament, denies ties to the PKK but does not view it as a terrorist group.
Vahap Coskun, a law academic at Diyarbakir’s Dicle University, said most Turkish Kurds opposed Ankara’s strategy in Syria, seeing it as part of a broader anti-Kurdish policy.
“These policies which the state is implementing are seriously wearing away at people’s sense of belonging, their feelings are hurt, there is an emotional fracture,” he said.
President Tayyip Erdogan has dismissed suggestions that his ruling AK Party is out of touch with Turkey’s Kurds, who make up 18% of the country’s 82 million people.
“Of our 291 (AKP) members of parliament, 50 are of Kurdish origin,” he said soon after the operation began.
But the AKP lags behind the HDP in much of southeast Turkey, winning 31% in the city of Diyarbakir in March municipal elections, about half of what its rival got.
The top AKP official in Diyarbakir, Serdar Budak, insisted that Turkish Kurds support the government’s efforts to combat terrorism at home and across the border in Syria.
“For three years there has been an atmosphere of peace in Diyarbakir. It is the same in the countryside. The fight against terrorism has created this atmosphere of peace,” he said, sitting beneath a large photograph of Erdogan.
Dicle University’s Coskun said the clampdown on HDP officials was exacerbating Kurds’ disenchantment.
“An atmosphere is being created which restricts freedoms. This atmosphere does not benefit Turkey,” he said.
On Tuesday Ankara replaced four elected HDP mayors with state officials, bringing to 12 the number of mayors it has unseated over alleged links to terrorism since the March elections.
The HDP links that clampdown to the Syria operation, saying its offices across the southeast are subject to a blockade and that the right to freedom of expression and assembly has been suspended.
Hundreds of people have also been detained due to social media posts critical of the military offensive.
“If Turkey was really thinking about peace, it would first solve the problems at home,” said a young teacher in a Diyarbakir tea house, declining to give his name for fear of losing his job. “The operation is aimed at intimidating Kurds in Turkey, to punish the Kurds here.”
While the HDP has been unable to demonstrate against the offensive and crackdown on the party, a sit-in protest against the HDP has been continuing on the doorstep of its Diyarbakir headquarters since early September.
Some 20 mothers and fathers gathered there accuse the HDP of having sent their children to join PKK fighters.
“We don’t know if he is alive or dead,” said Suleyman Aydin, 39, clutching a photo of his son Ozkan adorned with a Turkish flag.
Ozkan was 15 when he left home to join the PKK at the time of a peace process between Ankara and the militants in 2015 - the same year a ceasefire collapsed, unleashing some of the worst fighting since the insurgency began.
More than 4,600 people have been killed in Turkey and northern Iraq since the conflict resumed, according to the latest International Crisis Group tally.
Aydin, himself Kurdish, said his house in the Diyarbakir district of Sur was destroyed in that fighting and blamed the HDP for his plight: “We gave them a chance by voting for them, but they made use of that chance to take our children away.”
The HDP denies the allegations and says the protests are orchestrated by the state to demonize the party.
Reporting by Daren Butler; Editing by Gareth Jones