Tens of thousands of Kurds poured on to the streets of the Turkish city of Diyarbakir yesterday for the funeral of three activists killed in Paris.
The women, including a co-founder of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), died last week in execution-style shootings that many saw as an attempt to derail a nascent peace process between Ankara and the guerrillas after three decades of conflict. Hopes of an end to the war have grown in recent weeks after the government acknowledged it was talking to jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.
Diyarbakir’s Baglar district, a PKK stronghold, drew massive crowds as the coffins, draped in Kurdish flags and decorated with red carnations, were loaded on to hearses and driven slowly through the streets.
The bodies of PKK member Sakine Cansiz and the two other activists arrived in Turkey’s main Kurdish city amid tight security late on Wednesday.
“The martyrs’ path is our path. PKK is our party! Long live leader Apo!” the crowd chanted, referring to Ocalan, jailed on an island south of Istanbul since his capture in 1999.
Thousands more waited for the bodies to arrive at a parade ground where the funeral ceremony took place before the bodies were taken for burial in the women’s home towns. “Our hearts are burning,” said a tearful Aysel Tugluk, of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). “Three beautiful youths were slaughtered monstrously. Our three comrades were slaughtered just because they wanted freedom, an honourable life.”
There were minor scuffles between some groups, and police fired water cannon to disperse them, but no serious violence.
Prime minister Tayyip Erdogan had urged calm at the funeral and said security forces would be “sensitive and vigilant”.
Mr Erdogan, under pressure to bring an end to the violence, has said his government’s renewed peace efforts are sincere but has also maintained Ankara’s hardline approach to a conflict that has burned for almost 30 years.
Turkish warplanes bombed PKK targets in northern Iraq this week, in the first such raids since details of the talks with Ocalan emerged.
More than 40,000 people, mostly Kurds, have been killed since the PKK, designated a terrorist group by Turkey, took up arms in 1984.
Efforts to begin a peace process were overshadowed last week by the Paris killings, which Mr Erdogan has suggested could stem from an internal PKK feud or a bid to spoil the talks. The PKK blamed elements within the Turkish state or foreign powers.
Addressing crowds in Diyarbakir, BDP co-chairman Selahattin Demirtas said the Paris killings should be a watershed. “We say now is the time for peace. We shout this out in front of the bodies of our dead. Don’t let our children die any more. We can stop this bloodshed by talking. Through discussions we can solve our problems,” he said.
“If the process is to advance with confidence, these murders must be a turning point.”
Mr Erdogan’s government has widened cultural and language rights for Kurds, who make up about 20 per cent of Turkey’s population of 71 million, since it came to power ten years ago, but Kurdish activists say the reforms do not go far enough.
The Ankara government has spelt out its demands but given little hint of what concessions, if any, it might be willing to make.
The PKK, and most Kurds, want greater autonomy.