DIYARBAKIR Turkey (Reuters) - A Kurdish protester was shot dead and two others were wounded in southeastern Turkey on Tuesday as they clashed with security forces dismantling a newly erected statue of a prominent Kurdish militant.
Soldiers backed by military helicopters were removing the statue of Mahsum Korkmaz, the first field commander of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militant group, in the Lice district when they came under attack, the military said.
“Security forces immediately responded after the group attacked them with rocket launchers, rifles and hand-made explosives,” it said in a statement, estimating the number of protesters at up to 250.
It said military vehicles and two helicopters were damaged by bullets during the unrest.
A court ordered the demolition of the statue after it was erected in a cemetery last week to mark the 30th anniversary of the PKK’s first armed attack against Turkish forces, led by Korkmaz.
Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay said the statue and the protest at its demolition had been an attempt to derail a two-year-old peace process between the government and the PKK.
“This statue issue came out of the blue. Significant developments are taking place in the peace process, and a statue pops up. This is a clear provocation against the peace process,” Atalay told NTV television.
“What happened at the end is that we unfortunately lost one life,” he said.
The Union of Kurdistan Communities (KCK), the Kurdish militants’ umbrella political group, issued a statement calling on the ruling AK Party to “stop playing with fire and end its attack on Kurdish people.”
The PKK, considered a terrorist group by Turkey, the European Union and the United States, waged a three-decade insurgency to push for greater Kurdish rights, but hostilities have largely died down since a March 2013 ceasefire.
PKK guerrillas have meanwhile rushed to the assistance of Kurdish peshmerga fighters in northern Iraq, battling the advance of Islamic State militants and finding themselves on the same side as the United States, which has carried out air strikes in support of the Kurdish forces.
Jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan told pro-Kurdish lawmakers visiting him at the weekend that his movement’s war with the Turkish state was nearing its end, while prime minister and president-elect Tayyip Erdogan has made the Kurdish peace process one of his priorities.
But mutual suspicion still runs high in some parts of the southeast between Kurdish communities and the security forces in what has effectively been a militarised zone since the 1990s.
The head of a local office of Turkey’s Human Rights Association (IHD), Raci Bilici, identified the man who died in the clashes as Mehdi Taskin, 24, and said he was shot in the head. One of the two wounded had four bullet wounds, he said.
Turkey began peace talks with Ocalan in 2012, and last month parliament approved a legal framework for the process for the first time, an important step towards ending the insurgency.
Erdogan has staked considerable political capital in the peace efforts, broadening cultural and language rights for Kurds at the risk of alienating some of his own nationalist support.
Kurds account for around a fifth of Turkey’s population and their backing could boost Erdogan’s chances of changing the constitution to strengthen the powers of the presidency after he takes office at the end of the month.
Writing by Ece Toksabay; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Robin Pomeroy