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Wedding murder exposes Kurdish divisions in Turkey

A Free Syrian Army member is seen behind sandbags at a checkpoint during a siege on the Kurdish city of Afrin, which is under the control of
A Free Syrian Army member is seen behind sandbags at a checkpoint during a siege on the Kurdish city of Afrin, which is under the control of

By Daren Butler

DIYARBAKIR, Turkey (Reuters) - When gunmen stormed a wedding and shot dead a guest in southeastern Turkey, they stirred fears of a new outbreak of bloodshed in a region increasingly destabilized by Syria's civil war.

The killing in the city of Batman highlighted divisions between Kurds which echo the faultlines of the conflict in Syria, complicating Ankara's efforts to draw a line under a three-decade Kurdish insurgency on its own soil.

Turkey's peace process with the armed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), aimed at ending a conflict that has cost more than 40,000 lives, was already fragile.

But the emergence of a Kurdish Sunni Islamist party, Huda-Par, has reopened old wounds in the southeast, poorer than the rest of Turkey and scarred by the wider Kurdish-Turkish fight.

The party, established in December and now campaigning for local elections in March, draws support from sympathizers of Turkey's Hizbullah militant group which fought the PKK in the 1990s.

"That bloodshed is the source of animosity between the two sides and is not easy for people to forget," said Ayla Akat, member of parliament for Batman from the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which shares the same grassroots support as the PKK.

The historical animosity has been given a new twist with the war that has fragmented Syria, where radical Sunni Islamists are now fighting fierce battles with local Kurdish forces in the north, near the border with Turkey.

The PKK say that late last month, members of the Sunni Islamist Hizbullah attacked mourners with sticks and knives in Cizre, a town near the borders with Syria and Iraq, after the funeral of a Kurdish youth killed in a bomb attack in Syria.

Huda-Par denied its members had staged any such assault and said on the contrary, a group of 50-60 people, their faces concealed by headscarves, had headed to a district where the Islamist party's members live and attacked them, chanting: "Damn Islam", "Damn Sahria".

That incident followed a series of attacks on Islamists claimed by the PKK youth wing, which said they were in retaliation for attacks on Kurds in Syria.

PAINFUL MEMORIES

The animosity came to a head on November 2 when Huda-Par and BDP groups brawled on a Batman street.

Half an hour later, gunmen opened fire at the nearby wedding of known BDP supporters, killing one guest, Ozcan Temel, and wounding two before fleeing in a car.

The shooting revived painful memories of hundreds of tit-for-tat murders in the region by the ideologically opposed Hizbullah and PKK, both of which also fought the Turkish state and are deemed terrorist groups by Ankara.

Thousands thronged Batman for Temel's funeral, holding aloft PKK flags and pictures of its jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan, who has been in talks with Ankara on ending the PKK's insurgency for the last year. Many in the crowd chanted "Murderer Huda-Par" and "Damn Hizbullah".

Hizbullah founder Huseyin Velioglu, who was born in Batman, was shot dead by Turkish police in a siege of an Istanbul villa in 2000 and further raids had largely crushed the group, which is unrelated to Lebanon's Iranian-backed Hezbollah.

Huda-Par, Kurdish for "God's Party" and synonymous with the Arabic name Hizbullah, denies any direct links with the militants but acknowledges they share the same support base.

SYRIAN SPILLOVER

Tensions have been fuelled by a widely held view among PKK supporters, strongly denied in Ankara, that the Turkish government is backing radical Islamists in Syria.

Fighters from the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and other jihadist groups are fighting both Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Syrian Kurds in a conflict that has created a patchwork of antagonistic ethnic and sectarian pockets.

The Islamist Ozgur-Der association, which says it works with all rebel groups in Syria to supply food aid, said PKK hostility towards Turkish Islamists had been inflamed by reports of atrocities by Syrian rebels fighting the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), viewed as close to the PKK.

"When we said these allegations were untrue, PKK supporters attacked our offices in Van and Diyarbakir on the pretence that we were defending people in Syria who were killing Kurds," Ozgur-Der Chairman Ridvan Kaya said in his Istanbul office.

As well as the petrol bomb attacks on Ozgur-Der, Islamist groups were also targeted in similar incidents in Cizre, Silopi and other southeastern towns in recent months, with a PKK youth wing claiming responsibility for some attacks on Twitter.

"Our movement's actions will continue against those who see themselves as jihadists and support gangs with blood on their hands, like al Qaeda, al Nusra and the FSA," the PKK's youth wing said on Twitter on September 19.

Various Turkish Islamist groups do help radicals fighting in Syria, but Huda-Par say it favors dialogue to end the conflict.

Whether the groups are linked or not, the BDP's Akat Ata said Kurds in southeastern Turkey were drawing comparisons with events in Rojava, the Kurdish region in northern Syria.

"They say: 'There, gangs use guns against our people and look, today they used guns against the people in Batman'," Akat said in an office in the main southeastern city of Diyarbakir.

DISTRUST AHEAD OF ELECTIONS

There are fears that the presence of Huda-Par in local elections in March, in which the BDP and Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's ruling AK Party will vie for dominance, may exacerbate tensions in the region in the months ahead.

The two Kurdish groups share a distrust of the Turkish establishment and speculate the "deep state", a clandestine network of alleged nationalists within the state apparatus, could be stirring their conflict to frustrate peace efforts.

The PKK says shadowy state operatives encouraged Hizbullah to counter it in the 1990s, during one of the region's bloodiest episodes.

Now both groups say the operatives are backing the other, although "deep state" activities are widely believed to have been curtailed under Erdogan's rule, with hundreds of people convicted of coup plotting.

"The deep state was never dissolved in this region," Huda-Par deputy leader Huseyin Yilmaz told Reuters in the party's main office in Diyarbakir. "Their aim may be to revive a PKK-Hizbullah conflict and to prevent the Kurds from securing their rights, maybe to sabotage the (peace) process."

The PKK said it was "striking" that the Batman and Cizre attacks occurred after Erdogan met Huda-Par leader Zekeriya Yapicioglu, accusing the state of a turning a blind eye.

Police remanded in custody a Huda-Par member last week in connection with the wedding shooting. Yilmaz said the police action was part of a plot to undermine the party before elections, adding that dozens of attacks against his party had gone unpunished.

"They want to marginalize us or make us appear as the side which wants conflict," said Yilmaz, who was a lawyer for Hizbullah leaders in the past.

"We are aware of this trap."

(Editing by Nick Tattersall and Philippa Fletcher)

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