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Turkey sends tanks on to streets of Kurdish cities

Politicians and residents photograph military vehicles and soldiers in civilian areas as Turkey pushes its campaign against 'terrorists'
Tanks and troops in Silopi, and civilians pictured leaving the city (Twitter)

Turkey's armed forces have sent military vehicles, including tanks, into civilian areas in the predominantly Kurdish southeast of the country, according to photographs published on Wednesday.

In one video shared on social media by Faruk Encu, a Turkish tank can be seen in the Yenisehir district of Silopi, in Sirnak province.

On its Twitter account, the People’s Democracy Party (HDP) also published photographs on what was apparently a raid by the Turkish army that resulted in soldiers pointing guns at Encu. 

Despite the situation receiving little international attention, Turkey's armed forces, in collaboration with other state security agencies, have been engaged in near constant operations in the predominantly Kurdish south-east of the country since July.

But the campaign has increased in severity. On 14 December, Turkey's prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu pledged that security forces would go “neighbourhood by neighbourhood, street by street, house by house” to “cleanse” south-eastern towns of “terror elements”.

The military operations have often led to open clashes between state forces and local Kurdish resistance groups, including the banned armed Kurdish militant movement the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

In an interview on television station A Haber on 14 December, Davutoglu said military operations in the mainly Kurdish towns of Cizre, Silopi, and Yuksekova would continue.

Terrorism is being brought from the villages and small cities into the major settlements,”  Davutoglu said, adding that barricades and trenches built by local armed groups in Cizre, Silopi, Nusaybin, and Yuksekova have encumbered daily life.

There won't be any quarter in Cizre, Silopi and Sur that won't be cleansed of the terrorist elements,”  Davutoglu said. “There won't be a single house used as a base. They will be cleansed.”

Nurcan Baysal, the founder of the Diyarbakir Political and Social Research Institute, said Davutoglu's language was "very dangerous”.

If the Turkish state wants peace with its Kurdish citizens, it should change its dangerous language into the language of peace,” Baysal told MEE. “Unfortunately, the Turkish state has decided to wage war against the Kurdish people again.”

People are without water, electricity, food, medical care, and many civilians have died – and state officials say that they will continue this.”

The army's latest operations were first hinted at on 5 November when Turkey's then foreign minister, Feridun Sinirlioglu, announced plans for a “winter offensive” against the PKK and the Islamic State group. But the operations have not been limited to PKK bases in Iraq.

On 4 November, Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed that all “guerillas” within Turkey would be “liquidated”.

Military curfews

Since mid-August, state forces have repeatedly imposed special security zones and curfews on town and city centres in the region. More than 50 separate curfews have been declared since 16 August, the majority of which affected settlements in Diyarbakir, Mardin and Sirnak provinces.

In a joint statement, HDP and its sister party the Democratic Regions Party (DBP) said: “Curfews continue in the form of a permanent and routine execution in our region, bringing about a number of unlawful practices and civilian deaths.”

The days-long curfews imposed in many towns of the Kurdish region have so far claimed the lives of dozens of civilians, and left many others wounded.”

On 13 December, the Ministry of Education advised hundreds of teachers in Silopi and Cizre in Sirnak province that they should leave the area ahead of another major military operation.

In Diyarbakir, the most important majority Kurdish city in Turkey, where tanks have also been seen in civilian neighbourhoods this week, the central historical Sur neighbourhood has been subject to a security forces curfew since the assassination of the high-profile Kurdish rights lawyer Tahi Elci on 28 November.

Since then, soldiers with air support provided by military helicopters have been deployed in Sur. On 7 December, the historic Fatih Pasa mosque caught fire, an event which Figen Yuksekdag, the co-leader of the opposition HDP, claimed was caused by the army.

Middle East Eye's sources in Diyarbakir say the most likely cause was incendiary fire from a military helicopter, which has been firing on that part of the city for days.

Pro-government media immediately blamed the PKK for the assassination of Mr Elci, but have provided no evidence. An official investigation is ongoing.

On 22 November, the army destroyed the PKK's Martyr Harun cemetery in Lice after sealing off 25 of the town's districts. A local mosque was also destroyed.

Precise casualty figures in the curfew regions are unknown, but a steady stream of reports list many injured and killed. After one of the rolling curfews in Nusaybin, Mardin province, was lifted on 26 November nine people were counted killed.

Haci Birlik 'dragged'

The conflict has been stoked by the revelation on 3 December by local press, including the Radikal newspaper, that the “dragging” of the body of a young Kurdish man named Haci Birlik through the streets of Sirnak was likely orchestrated by the police as a deliberate provocation.

Birlik, 24, was the brother-in-law of HDP Sirnak deputy Leyla Birlik. On 2 October he was killed and his corpse strapped to the back of a police truck and then dragged through the streets.

In recordings that were unearthed during the general prosecutor's investigation, and reported by Radikal, police are heard discussing what to do with Haci's body, and how to attach it to the truck with a rope and hook.

Birlik's lawyers believe the act was ordered by the local police chief. An investigation is ongoing.

The Turkish state should immediately end the military curfews in Kurdish towns and return to the negotiating table again,” Nurcan Baysal told MEE. “If not, this time the war will be worse than [the] 90s with all the consequences that go with that.”