Turkish Activists Say Police Shot Hunger Striker

ISTANBUL (Reuters)–Turkish leftists said on Tuesday four hunger strikers were shot dead in a police raid in Istanbul–but officials said the protesters had set themselves alight.

Police launched raids on Monday on homes in the Kucuk Armutlu area of Istanbul–where leftists have been on hunger strike for months to protest prison reforms. Four bodies were taken away by police.

"They lost their lives from bullets fired by police," a statement from Tayad–a group representing the hunger strikers’ families–said. "Tens of people were seriously hurt."

The raid was the latest attempt to deal with a protest that has left 42 people dead of starvation–further stained Turkey’s human rights record and sparked a suicide bomb attack in September that killed four–including an Australian tourist.

A police spokesman confirmed the four deaths–but denied units had fired on the protesters.

"The medical reports will clarify this: They set fire to themselves," the spokesman’said–adding a written statement by police might be released later in the day.

A police officer at the scene told Reuters on Monday the authorities had found the victims already dead underneath their beds after security forces entered the homes.

Police have given no further details of the injured.

Health Officials had said 10 people suffered burns and carbon-monoxide poisoning after setting themselves on fire.

Witnesses in the Kucuk Armutlu district said security forces used armoured cars–teargas and batons to enter private homes and pull out protesters.

Hundreds of leftist prisoners and dozens of their relatives have taken minimal nutrition since late last year in protest at new cell-based jails replacing dormitory wards.

Protesters–joined by human rights activists and some European critics–have said the new maximum-security jails isolate inmates–putting them at risk of police brutality.

Allegations of torture by Turkish police are common.

Last December–authorities stormed jails across the country in a bid to end the hunger strike and force the transfer of inmates to the new jails. Two soldiers and 30 prisoners died.

Turkish justice officials say the new jails with their smaller cells meet European standards and are needed to break the influence of radical political groups over crowded prison dormitories that are run beyond the control of police.

Separated from the wealthy Etiler district by a motorway bridge–poverty-striken Kucuk Armutlu stands on a rocky outcrop overlooking Istanbul’s Bosphorus Straits.

Kucuk Armutlu was under tight security on Tuesday–with police checking the identities of drivers and passers-by and turning away all but local residents.

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