DIYARBAKIR, Turkey (Reuters) - Ubeydullah Durna was trying to fend off a firebomb attack on his Islamist association by suspected separatist Kurdish militants when he was shot dead on the roof of the building.
His bearded face, framed in a white shroud and a green headband emblazoned with a koranic verse, now adorns websites linked to the Kurdish Hizbullah movement group which fought a vicious battle with the leftist separatists through the 1990s.
Durna’s killing in the city of Diyabarkir near Turkey’s border with Iran on May 5 marked a chilling escalation in unrest between the two sides.
Hizbullah, having abstained from militancy for over a decade, has warned that some supporters are ready to take up arms again.
The warning comes at a critical time for Turkey as it prepares for a parliamentary election on June 12, with conflict in the region a major concern for voters.
Such a prospect strikes fear into the hearts of people in the mainly Kurdish region, where 1,000 people have been killed in tit-for-tat killings by Hizbullah and the Marxist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), ideologically opposed groups both designated as terrorist organisations by Turkey.
Both Hizbullah, or Party of God, and legal Islamist groups such as Durna’s Mustazaf-Der, which are regarded as having ties to Hizbullah, still talk of making peace with the PKK.
“We have stretched out a hand of peace to them and it is still waiting in the air. It is not too late,” Mustazaf-Der chairman Huseyin Yilmaz said in his office looking out over the city of Diyarbakir where the two sides vie for influence.
Hizbullah, which is not linked to Lebanon’s Iranian-backed Hezbollah, emerged in the 1980s around the same time as the leftist PKK. There was speculation that at times Hizbullah was encouraged by the security forces as a counter-force to the PKK.
In 2000, police killed Hizbullah leader Huseyin Velioglu in a siege of an Istanbul villa, and subsequent raids crushed the group’s militant wing.
Since then the movement shunned violence in its pursuit of introducing Sharia law in Muslim but secular Turkey.
In Diyarbakir, the main city in the Kurdish southeast, there are bookshops, a newspaper, a magazine and a broadcaster sympathetic to Hizbullah’s Islamic goals.
But a statement carried on Hizbullah’s website after Durna’s death warned that some members were ready to return to violence.
“After the latest martyrdom the borders of patience and tolerance are being severely tested,” the Hizbullah statement said.
“If a conflict starts, a process will be entered from which there will be no recovery,” it added. “We want to make it clear that we are have difficulty in controlling the grassroots and youth.”
The PKK has threatened to resume its war on the state with a vengeance unless the government enters serious negotiations to end the long-running separatist insurgency after the election.
“The PKK keeps threatening that if there aren’t any concessions immediately after the election all hell will break loose. I think that could change the whole dynamics in the southeast,” said Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul-based analyst.
The resurgent popularity of Hizbullah and sustained power of the PKK has the makings of a powderkeg in the southeast.
“If these two powerful groups embark upon a merciless conflict like in the past, this time it will be more bloody and destructive,” analyst Rusen Cakir wrote in Vatan newspaper.
Groups sympathetic to Hizbullah, including Mustazaf-Der, demonstrated their ability to mobilize people, organizing celebrations for the anniversary of the Prophet Mohammad’s birth last month.
They sent a CD promoting the event to every household in Diyarbakir, and tens of thousands of people participated in towns and villages across the southeast.
The movement was also encouraged by the release in January of several prominent Hizbullah members, thanks to new legislation limiting the period defendants can be held without a conviction. There were largescale celebrations of their release.
Mustazaf-Der’s Yilmaz, also a lawyer for the former militants, said it was time for the state to accept Hizbullah.
“For 10 years it is not involved in violence and wants to express itself legally. The state must respond and remove it from its terrorist list,” Yilmaz said.
Yilmaz complained his own group had been under attack in recent years from PKK sympathisers. It was also subject to police raids and a court bid to close it over alleged links to Hizbullah. He denied such links and said there were only “emotional” ties.
“There are no Hizbullah cells or structure in the region. Hizbullah is in the hearts of the people, deep in the hearts,” said Yilmaz, a softly-spoken man with a greying beard.
The released Hizbullah members, according to Yilmaz, have fled abroad to avoid being re-arrested, though they now renounce militancy.
The leader of the group, Isa Altsoy, is believed to be in Western Europe and media reports point to other leading members being in Iran since their release.
“It is wrong to describe Hizbullah as a (militant) group. It was always a religious community,” said voluntary group worker Ismail Ogur, 42, in a bookshop opposite Diyarbakir’s 11th Century Great Mosque. “It was just wrongly portrayed.”
Based in Diyarbakir, Mustazaf-Der was set up in 2004 with the stated aim of fighting poverty, social divisions and ignorance through the Islamic community.
It is also active in trying to end blood feuds between clans in the region and its message resonates with many people.
The association’s agenda reflected a decision by the group to turn its back on violence and pursue models from elsewhere in the Middle East, analysts said.
“They are following more the Hamas or even the Lebanese Hezbollah path, which is not just to be a violent organization but to focus on charitable works and building up this social support base,” said Jenkins.
Previously, militant minded Islamist radicals found Hezbollah too dovish and went abroad in search of violent jihad, but a renewal of hostilities with the PKK could change that.
Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Samia Nakhoul