ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkish police used water cannon, tear gas and baton charges to break up Kurdish demonstrations across the country on Sunday and one local politician died in the protests, a sign of rising tension ahead of the Kurdish New Year next week.
Turkey’s pro-Kurdish party and Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) armed militants have both called for large demonstrations for Newroz, the Kurdish New Year that begins on March 21, sensing the government, which has strongly backed Arab uprisings, may be vulnerable to pressure from street protests.
Both the legal Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) and the PKK are demanding a level of autonomy for the mainly Kurdish southeast of the country.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s conservative government has taken steps to increase cultural rights for the country’s Kurds - some 20 percent of the population - but says these are individual rights and that it is strongly against any separate political settlement for the Kurds or the southeast as a whole.
The biggest protest took place in Diyarbakir, the main city in the southeast. Several thousand people gathered to march to an area just outside the city to celebrate Newroz.
Hundreds of riot police, backed by armored cars and helicopters, took over strategic points in the city from the early morning. They tried to prevent large crowds coming together and attempted to block the way to the Newroz meeting. Turkish authorities have banned Newroz celebrations until March 21.
Clashes broke out across the city. Television pictures showed a police water cannon vehicle driving towards a group of stone-throwing youths, spraying them as it went, while other officers fired tear gas.
Still, tens of thousands of people gathered just outside the city, waving Kurdish flags and holding up portraits of Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed PKK leader.
“Long live the leader Apo,” they chanted, referring to Ocalan’s nickname. “The PKK is the people, the people are here.”
Crowds set fire to at least four mobile telephone relay stations, as well as tires. Fire is the traditional symbol of Newroz, originally a Zoroastrian festival.
Thousands of people danced, cheered and shouted slogans as columns of black smoke rose into the air.
Police in Istanbul, Turkey’s biggest city with a large Kurdish population, also moved in to break up a Newroz celebration just outside the city’s ancient city walls.
Clashes broke out when police prevented two groups of more than 1,000 people each coming together, Turkish media said.
Police said they arrested 106 people in the demonstration.
Haci Zengin, the head of an Istanbul branch office of the BDP, died after being hit on the head by a tear gas canister, BDP members of parliament posted on their Twitter accounts.
Turkish prosecutors have this year arrested thousands of people across the country accused of sympathies with the PKK, which Turkey, the United States and the European Union recognize as a terrorist organization.
More than 40,000 militants, soldiers and civilians have been killed in the fighting since the PKK took up arms in 1984.
Writing by Jon Hemming; Editing by Karolina Tagaris