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Protester and soldier killed in Turkey clashes over PKK statue

AFP
People attending the funeral ceremony of Mehdi Taskin, who died during clashes between protesters and security forces during an operation to remove a statue of Mahsum Korkmazare, one of the founders of the PKK, on August 19, 2014
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Diyarbakir (Turkey) (AFP) - Two people were shot dead and at least two others wounded Tuesday when Turkish security forces clashed with Kurds protesting at the dismantling of a controversial new statue of a slain PKK commander.

A demonstrator in his 20s died of gunshot wounds to the head at the scene, security sources said, with a soldier dying later in hospital.

The clashes erupted when protesters gathered at a cemetery outside the town of Lice in the Diyarbakir region of southeastern Turkey to prevent soldiers from removing the statue of Mahsum Korkmaz, a founder of the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

The dead demonstrator was later buried in the graveyard as thousands of mourners booed troops and shouted PKK slogans.

The statue of Korkmaz, who planned the first attacks of the PKK's insurgency seeking self-rule for Turkey's Kurds, was unveiled on Saturday, but Turkish nationalists saw it as glorifying "terrorism" and a court swiftly ordered its demolition.

Security forces launched an early morning operation to dismantle the statue, which quickly turned violent, with soldiers firing live bullets and tear gas, and protesters -- mainly children -- responding with stones, witnesses told AFP.

The two badly wounded are in a serious condition in hospital.

The Turkish Armed Forces said in a statement that a group of around 250 people -- including PKK members -- attacked the soldiers trying to remove the statue with rocket launchers, rifles and hand-made explosives.

The group fired at two military helicopters, forcing the soldiers to "immediately respond", the statement said.

The PKK's military wing denounced the killing of the protester, saying "justice must be done. An inquiry should be opened immediately on the military who gave the order to open fire on the crowd".

It accused the Turkish state of "a lack of respect for symbols of the Kurdish people", in a statement to the pro-Kurdish Firat news agency.

The statue was eventually removed, leaving just the plinth, but sporadic clashes continued in and around the cemetery.

- 'Act of provocation' -

Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay told NTV television that the incident was an "act of provocation" aimed at harming the peace talks with Kurdish rebels.

The statue of Korkmaz, which shows him with a rifle by his side, was unveiled on Saturday to mark the 30th anniversary of the first PKK attacks against the Turkish authorities. Korkmaz has been feted as a martyr by Kurds since he was shot dead in 1986.

The statue's unveiling sparked outrage among Turkish nationalists who denounced it as the unwanted result of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's policy of granting greater rights to the Kurdish minority.

Turkey is seeking to restart stalled peace talks with the PKK to end a conflict that has claimed an estimated 40,000 lives.

Erdogan, who was elected president this month, launched clandestine negotiations with jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in 2012 but they stalled in September last year when the rebels accused him of failing to deliver on reform.

However, hopes have been raised in recent weeks of a new breakthrough.

In his presidential victory speech, Erdogan said the peace process would continue and that he would push to enshrine key Kurdish demands in the constitution.

In a statement from his cell on the prison island of Imrali, Ocalan said Saturday that Turkey was on the verge of "historic developments" and that the conflict was "coming to an end".

Despite its blacklisting as a terror group by Turkey's Western allies, the PKK has joined forces with other Kurdish units in the US-backed ration to halt the advance of Islamic militants in Iraq.

Atalay said the peace talks should be expanded to include the PKK leadership based in the Kandil Mountains of northern Iraq.

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