DIYARBAKIR, Turkey (AFP) — Turkish police clashed for a second day Sunday with thousands of Kurds protesting a visit by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the country’s restive Kurdish-majority southeast.
Fighting erupted when some 3,000 demonstrators — mostly supporters of the country’s main Kurdish party, the Democratic Society Party (DTP) — attempted to stage a march in the town of Yuksekova, ignoring police orders to disperse.
Riot police fired shots in the air and used tear gas and water cannon against the demonstrators who pelted officers with stones.
The unrest came as Erdogan pledged unity and promised fresh steps to develop the impoverished region during a ceremony to inaugurate a hospital in Yuksekova before moving on to the nearby city of Hakkari.
"Let us protect our peace and stand united. If we increase our solidarity, we will also increase our development," he said, blaming the clashes on "provocation" by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been waging a 24-year campaign for self-determination.
The local governor’s office announced that paramilitary troops seized a large amount of explosives and weapons, including 20 kilogrammes (44 pounds) of TNT and 20 hand grenades, which it said PKK rebels planned to use to attack civilians and security forces on Sunday.
The haul was found in a village 60 kilometers (40 miles) south of Yuksekoave, it said, but did not say when the operation took place.
In Hakkari, demonstrators stoned a convoy carrying officials from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and press members at the entrance of the city. No one was hurt. The prime minister arrived in a helicopter.
Police also quashed some small-scale demonstrations in the city where shops remained closed — a traditional Kurdish method of protest against the government.
In Istanbul, DTP members attempted to hold a sit-in protest in the central district of Beyoglu, but riot police used tear gas to disperse them and detained 27 demonstrators, an AFP photographer said.
Erdogan’s visit came a day after a suspected bomb blast rocked the AKP headquarters in Hakkari on Saturday and he was greeted by clashes between Kurds and police in the eastern city of Van.
There have been a series of Kurdish demonstrations across the country since last month as the military increased its operations against PKK militants both inside Turkey and in neighbouring northern Iraq where they take refuge.
Kurds have also been outraged over allegations that PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan — considered a hero by many Kurds — was mistreated and threatened with death in a Turkish prison where he is serving a life sentence in solitary confinement.
Erdogan on Sunday firmly denied the allegations, dismissing them as a ploy to drain support from the ruling party ahead of local elections next year.
"There is no mistreatment, it is all a lie," he charged.
The AKP, which won a massive re-election to power last year, has now set its sight on winning local administrations in the Kurdish-majority southeast, which are held by the DTP.
Erdogan has publicly accused the DTP of failing to provide services in the Kurdish-majority provinces and has also slammed the party for failing to condemn PKK violence.
The DTP is currently facing a possible ban by the constitutional court for links with PKK rebels. The party, which urges a peaceful resolution to the conflict in the southeast, denies the allegations.
The PKK, blacklisted as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the United States and the European Union, picked up arms for self-rule in the east and southeast of Turkey in 1984, sparking a conflict that has claimed some 44,000 lives.
The government is under pressure to back the military campaign against the group with socio-economic measures to erode popular support for the rebels in the southeast.
Earlier this year, Erdogan announced plans to invest up to 15 billion dollars (11.7 billion euros) over five years in infrastructure projects in the region.