Silvan, the urban flashpoint in Turkey’s Kurdish conflict
DIYARBAKIR: Tanks and armored vehicles patrol the largely deserted streets, snipers are stationed on rooftops of bullet-riddled buildings. Shops are shuttered and food is becoming scarce as a curfew enters its second week. Urban warfare has become the bloody new face of Turkey’s Kurdish conflict in the flashpoint southeastern town of Silvan.
At least seven people, including two civilians and a policeman, have been killed as Turkish forces battle to wrest control of three districts of Silvan from militants belonging to the youth wing of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). “There is no safety in the neighborhoods under curfew. People are scared of going out because they don’t know where the bullets will come from,” said local journalist Ibrahim Bakhtiyar. “People are getting shot even in the neighborhoods where there is no curfew.”
The rebels dug trenches and set up roadblocks in Silvan after the November 1 election that saw President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party tighten its hold on Turkey while the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) was almost voted out of parliament. Security forces retaliated by imposing a strict curfew and launching sweeping security operations in three neighborhoods of Silvan, a provincial town of about 90,000 people. HDP lawmaker Sibel Yigitalp claimed that the Turkish forces were randomly shelling civilian homes in Silvan. “If you are using tanks in residential areas, it means you have launched a war on your own people,” she said on Monday.
‘Risk of starvation’
In the neighborhoods of Tekel, Mescit and Konak, scars of fierce street battles are clearly evident in bullet-riddled buildings. The streets are mostly deserted, but strewn with rubble, shattered glass and rubbish, with many residents holed up inside their apartments. Members of Turkey’s special police units armed with rifles and batons, some wearing masks, ensure no one crosses them or makes an attempt to defy the curfew.
A 45-year-old taxi driver was shot dead outside a tea house on Monday and an elderly man was wounded when his house was hit by a rocket. “Witnesses said the police had started shooting at the tea house out of the blue,” said Omer Onen, the co-chair of HDP’s Diyarbakir office. “There is no access to communication, people are at risk of starvation,” he said after visiting the areas under curfew as part of an HDP delegation. “They didn’t give us any permission to distribute food.” On Tuesday a Turkish soldier was killed after a tank fell on him in Silvan, security sources said.
The PKK initially took up arms in 1984 with the aim of establishing an independent state for Turkey’s Kurdish minority, although lately the demands have focused on greater autonomy and rights. As prime minister, Erdogan launched secret negotiations with jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan and a landmark ceasefire was agreed in 2013. But the truce fell apart in July this year after attacks on pro-Kurdish activists blamed on Islamic State jihadists triggered a wave of tit-for-tat violence. Since then, a new generation of urban fighters has taken centre stage in the conflict, attacking security forces in cities with heavy weaponry, setting up street barricades and digging trenches.
The government says more than 150 police and soldiers have been killed in attacks blamed on the PKK, most of them in cities, a significant departure from the group’s emphasis on fighting in rural areas. Cizre, a mainly Kurdish town near the border with Syria and Iraq, became a symbol of the renewed conflict after the army imposed a controversial nine-day curfew during violent clashes with the PKK youth wing in September. Rights groups said 21 civilians were killed during the military lockdown but the government says all the dead were “terrorists” and claimed killing up to 32.
In fresh fighting this week, a rocket fired by the militants hit a public hospital in Cizre, hitting the morgue and a dialysis unit. Analysts say Turks’ concerns about security were a major factor in the Justice and Development Party (AKP) winning back its majority in a major victory for Erdogan, who has vowed to “liquidate” the rebels. And in operations unleashed just a day after the election, Turkish war planes pounded PKK targets in the country’s southeast and in northern Iraq, killing more than 30 rebels according to government figures. —AFP