ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey’s outlawed Kurdish PKK militant group attacked a convoy carrying the main opposition party leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, in the northeast of the country on Thursday but he escaped unharmed, the interior minister said.
Interior Minister Efkan Ala told Turkey’s NTV news channel that three soldiers were injured in the exchange of fire with what he said were Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) attackers.
President Tayyip Erdogan has said he will root out and destroy the PKK, which seeks autonomy or independence. He sent tanks across the border into Syria on Thursday on a mission that appeared to be intended to stop Syrian Kurds he links to the PKK occupying border areas being yielded by Islamic State fighters.
“They opened fire in front of the convoy,” said Mehmet Bekaroglu, a lawmaker in Kilicdaroglu’s secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP) who was in the convoy of about 15 to 20 vehicles during the attack near the northeastern city of Artvin.
NTV and CNN Turk television broadcast images of police firing at the alleged attackers. Kilicdaroglu was flown out of the area by helicopter, Bekaroglu said.
“Don’t worry about us. We are OK. We are currently in a safe area,” Kilicdaroglu told Turkey’s NTV channel.
Kilicdaroglu’s CHP party said one of the officers wounded had subsequently died but did not say who it believed was behind the attack. CHP’s deputy leader Engin Altay simply called it a “terrorist attack”, a comment echoed by the prime minister.
NATO ‘FRONT LINE’
There was no immediate PKK comment on Thursday’s incident.
The attack adds to tensions in Turkey, a NATO state already on edge after last month’s failed attempt by rogue soldiers to topple Erdogan and following a spate of bombings and other attacks authorities have blamed on Kurdish or Islamist militants linked to neighboring Syria or Iraq.
The abortive coup has however narrowed some of Turkey’s political divides, as the CHP joined Erdogan’s AK Party in its condemnation of the action. Turmoil in a country in the forefront of Western operations to quell Islamic State is causing deep concern in other NATO capitals.
The CHP has traditionally taken a hard line on Kurdish demands for separate status, though any national politician of the mainstream parties could these days become a target, especially in the east.
The pro-Kurdish opposition party HDP, which Erdogan accuses of links with the PKK, said in a statement it condemned the attack “in the strongest terms”.
The government has accused the PKK of a series of attacks this month in the southeast of Turkey, where the group has fought a three-decade insurgency.
The PKK have claimed responsibility for at least one of those attacks, which involved a strike on a police station.
“The attack on Kilicdaroglu’s convoy in Artvin is a vile terrorist attack targeting democratic stability and peace of the people,” Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said in a written statement, without naming any group behind the attackers.
Additional reporting by Asli Kandemir and Cagan Uslu; Editing by Edmund Blair