TUNCELI, Turkey (Reuters) - Kurdish militants said on Monday they were behind the kidnapping of a Turkish opposition lawmaker and that increased military operations after his abduction at the weekend were putting his life at risk.
Clashes between the army and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is waging an armed campaign for autonomy in southeastern Turkey, have risen sharply in recent weeks ahead of Wednesday’s 28th anniversary of the start of the conflict.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has said PKK attacks are directly linked to the war in neighboring Syria, where Ankara says a PKK-linked group now controls some border areas.
PKK fighters seized Huseyin Aygun of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) on Sunday on a road in the Ovacik district of Tunceli province, which he represents in parliament, the local governor’s office said.
Aygun “was detained by our guerrillas,” Firat News, a website close to the PKK, cited the group’s leadership as saying in a statement. It said the Turkish army launched operations in the Ahponos Valley in Ovacik after Aygun’s kidnapping.
“This operation is placing Huseyin Aygun’s life in danger. The CHP and the public must be aware of this, and operations must be halted,” the statement said, according to Firat.
It was not clear if the statement meant Aygun’s life was at risk because he might get killed in clashes or that the PKK was threatening to kill him if the army did not back off.
Security sources said about 200 specially trained soldiers were in the valley in an effort to rescue Aygun.
Haluk Koc, a CHP member of parliament, criticized the government’s record on combating the PKK.
“The PKK is currently holding 26 citizens, including state officials. It has killed 70 Turkish soldiers and wounded hundreds of others in the last three months,” Koc told a televised news conference.
“Yet the prime minister says everything’s under control. Not a single abducted person has been rescued in the last year.”
Once-friendly Turkish-Syrian relations have turned hostile since the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began 17 months ago. Last week Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu accused Assad’s government of arming the PKK.
The PKK has expressed backing for Assad, and Turkey is worried that a Kurdish group affiliated with the PKK in northern Syria has taken control of towns along its border.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said after talks with Davutoglu in Istanbul on Saturday she was worried the PKK may find “a foothold to launch attacks against others” in Syria and reiterated support for Turkey’s fight against the militants.
Turkey, the United States and the European Union consider the PKK, based mainly in northern Iraq, a terrorist group.
August 15, 1984, is considered the start of the PKK’s armed struggle, one of the world’s most protracted insurgencies in which more than 40,000 people, mainly Kurds, have been killed.
A group linked to the PKK claimed responsibility for the August 9 bombing of a military bus that killed two soldiers in a rare attack in western Turkey near the Aegean resort of Foca.
In Hakkari province, about 400 miles away, Turkish security forces killed 115 PKK militants, Erdogan said last week, and two soldiers also died in the nearly three-week operation. Other sources put the PKK’s death toll at about 10.
The PKK says it is fighting for greater political and cultural rights for Turkey’s estimated 15 million ethnic Kurds, scaling back its earlier demands for an independent state.
Additional reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley in Istanbul; Editing by Alistair Lyon