Turkey hits Kurd rebels, cracks down on Erdogan rivals

Fulya Ozerkan with Tanya Willmer in Istanbul
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A street vendor sells scarves of Turkish President Recep Taqyyip Erdogan at Istanbul's Ataturk airport on November 3, 2015

A street vendor sells scarves of Turkish President Recep Taqyyip Erdogan at Istanbul's Ataturk airport on November 3, 2015 (AFP Photo/Ozan Kose)

Ankara (AFP) - Turkey cracked down on rivals of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday and launched air strikes against Kurdish rebels, clearly signalling a return to hardline tactics after an election that cemented his grip on power.

The West has voiced deep concerns about Sunday's vote that delivered Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) a landslide victory, fearing the country will slide into increasingly authoritarian rule.

Hopes of a possible return to Kurdish peace talks after the vote were dashed after the military said its warplanes bombed bases of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in southeastern Turkey and their northern Iraq stronghold on Monday.

"Shelters, caves and arms depots identified as being used by terrorists from the separatist terrorist organisation were destroyed with air bombardments," it said in a statement.

Three Kurdish rebels also died on Tuesday after clashes erupted with security forces in two areas of the restive southeast, the first reported deaths in PKK ranks since the election.

Analysts say anxiety over the resurgent Kurdish conflict and a spate of bloody attacks by the Islamic State group were key reasons why voters flocked back to the AKP.

In a turnaround that confounded pollsters, Erdogan's Islamic-rooted AKP reclaimed the majority it lost five months ago, winning almost half the votes and returning the Muslim-majority state of 78 million to single-party rule.

- 'The start of civil war' -

And events in Turkey appear to bear out grim predictions that the "Sultan" who has dominated politics for more than a decade will brook no dissent as he seeks to expand his presidential powers.

Prosecutors on Tuesday charged two journalists over a magazine cover critical of Erdogan, while police rounded up dozens of supporters of a US-based cleric now regarded as the president's nemesis.

The leftwing Nokta magazine said on Twitter its editor-in-chief Cevheri Guven and managing editor Murat Capan had been arrested and charged with "attempting to overthrow the government by force".

Police had raided its Istanbul offices on Monday after the election edition of the magazine hit the streets with a front cover declaring "The start of civil war in Turkey".

Police also detained 44 suspects including high-ranking bureaucrats and police as part of a "terrorism" investigation into exiled lay preacher Fetullah Gulen.

Gulen is charged with running a "parallel state" which launched a widespread corruption probe into the president's inner circle in 2013 that tarnished Erdogan and his party, whose initials AK mean "pure" in Turkish.

Three former provincial governors and an ex-deputy police chief were among those held.

- 'Press morality and freedom' -

The action came only a day after the United States and two European observer missions expressed concern about media intimidation during the election campaign.

Ankara denied there was any pressure on the media, despite a string of high-profile arrests and raids on opposition television stations that raised alarm in the run-up to the vote.

"Nobody is forced to be silent in this country," deputy premier Akdogan said, but added: "Press morality goes hand in hand with press freedom."

Despite constant concerns about human rights that have hampered Turkey's EU aspirations, analysts say the bloc will have no choice but to deal with Erdogan.

EU president Donald Tusk even congratulated Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on his election win on Tuesday while urging Turkey to show its readiness to work with Brussels on issues such as the migrant crisis.

Brussels has voiced worries over deteriorating security linked to the brutal war in Syria, which has seen two million refugees take shelter in Turkey.

Tusk also urged Ankara to restart the peace process with the Kurds but Deputy Prime Minister Yalcin Akdogan said conditions were not yet ripe.

"For us to say the peace process has started, the factors poisoning this process should be removed," he told NTV television.

Ankara had unleashed a new air war against PKK rebels after renewed militant violence in July, destroying a 2013 truce and hopes of fresh talks to end a conflict that has claimed 45,000 lives since 1984.

Erdogan, who became prime minister in 2003 and then Turkey's first directly-elected president in 2014, was initially hailed in the West for transforming Turkey into a model of Muslim democracy and turning around its basket-case economy.

But a brutal police crackdown on nationwide protests in 2013, a massive purge of the judiciary following the corruption probe and constant concerns about human rights have cooled relations with both Washington and Brussels.

"The AKP should take comfort in its large majority and start to view minority views and even peaceful dissent more benignly, in a way that befits a country negotiating accession to the European Union," said Sinan Ulgen of the Istanbul-based Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (Edam).

"The lesson of the two elections is clear: Turkey's voters want a strong, stable government, but not one that runs roughshod over its opponents," he said.