ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — In a new government crackdown on a pro-Kurdish party, Turkey on Monday removed from office the elected mayors of three cities in the mostly Kurdish-populated southeast region over their alleged links to rebels, replacing them with government appointees.
The mayors of the cities of Diyarbakir, Mardin and Van — members of the People's Democratic Party, or HDP — were sacked over alleged links to the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, and over evidence that they had allegedly aided the outlawed organization, an Interior Ministry statement said.
They were removed some five months after being elected to office in local elections.
In a similar move in 2016, the government ousted mayors from nearly 100 municipalities in the southeast region and replaced them with government appointees during a state of emergency declared after a failed military coup.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had warned prior to the election that pro-Kurdish mayors could be replaced by a caretaker should they win.
Accusations against the three include attending funerals of PKK rebels, changing street or park names to those of known militants and singing the group's anthem, according to the Interior Ministry statement. The ministry also listed a series of charges or ongoing trials against the three mayors.
The HDP said the mayors of Diyarbakir, Mardin and Van all received more than 50 percent of the votes and their ouster was "based on lies and unlawful grounds."
"This is a new and clear political coup," the party said in a statement. "It also constitutes a clearly hostile move against the political will of the Kurdish people."
Police used water cannons to disperse crowds that tried to gather outside the municipality building in Diyarbakir to protest the elected mayors' ouster.
Ekrem Imamoglu, the newly elected mayor of Istanbul, also criticized the mayors' dismissal, saying on Twitter: "Ignoring the will of the people is unacceptable."
Imamoglu, from Turkey's main opposition party, was elected mayor in local elections on March 31 but his win was canceled over alleged irregularities. He went on to win a repeat election by a wide margin.
Separately, police on Monday also detained 418 people suspected of links to the PKK in separate operations in 29 provinces, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported. Authorities also launched an operation wide-scale operation targeting the PKK in the in the provinces of Hakkari, Sirnak and Van, which border Iraq and Iran, according to the agency.
The PKK, considered a terror organization by Turkey and its Western allies, has waged an insurgency since 1984 and the conflict has claimed tens of thousands of lives.
The government accuses HDP politicians of links to the PKK, and Erdogan regularly brands them terrorists and traitors.
The HDP insists it advocates Kurdish rights and democracy through legal, political means.
Several party lawmakers, including former chairman Selahattin Demirtas, and mayors have been jailed.