Turkey Fires Kurdish Mayors Ahead of Military Push Into Syria

Selcan Hacaoglu and Taylan Bilgic

(Bloomberg) -- Turkey fired the elected mayors of three major Kurdish-dominated cities in the country’s southeast and detained more than 400 people in a crackdown as it prepares to push a Syrian Kurdish militia away from its border.

The mayors of Diyarbakir, Mardin and Van were removed Monday for their alleged ties to the PKK, an autonomy-seeking Kurdish group classified as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the U.S. and the European Union. Police used water cannons to disperse hundreds of Kurdish protesters outside the mayor’s office in Diyarbakir, according to footage by Arti TV.

While Turkish authorities have in the past evicted Kurdish officials at times of heightened political tension at home, this time the moves were seen as linked to a long-promised military operation in northern Syria.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to carve out a frontier buffer zone that will be off-limits to the Syrian YPG militia, which authorities say has links to the PKK. The seizure of three Turkish municipalities with a population of about 3.7 million people where the PKK traditionally enjoys strong backing aims to prevent any support for the militants.

But it also renewed accusations that Erdogan and his nationalist allies are damaging Turkey’s democracy by attacking the pro-Kurdish HDP after it swept back to office in ballots in the southeast and helped Turkey’s main opposition party to win mayoral races in the capital and the nation’s commercial hub.

“All political parties and society should react to this coup against the will of the people,” Garo Paylan, an HDP lawmaker, said on Twitter. “If you remain silent, then the next in line could be Ankara and Istanbul.”

Erdogan warned before local elections in March that his government would not hesitate to replace HDP mayors if they are deemed to be linked to Kurdish militants. The HDP has faced a broad clampdown since it won enough votes to enter parliament in 2015. Since then, the government has jailed hundreds of Kurdish politicians and seized about 100 municipalities in the southeast.

The HDP denies it’s influenced by the PKK and blames the group’s armed rebellion on a history of repressive policies toward Kurds.

All three mayors were elected with a majority of votes on March 31. Diyarbakir Mayor Adnan Selcuk Mizrakli got 63% of the provincial vote, while Mardin Mayor Ahmet Turk had 56% and Van Mayor Bedia Ozgokce Ertan received 54% support.

Officials have said they expect a headquarters for the expected joint operation by Turkey and the U.S., which supported the Syrian YPG in the fight against Islamic State, to be up and running this week.

(Updates with context in third paragraph.)

To contact the reporters on this story: Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara at shacaoglu@bloomberg.net;Taylan Bilgic in Istanbul at tbilgic2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Onur Ant at oant@bloomberg.net, Mark Williams, Alaa Shahine

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