Tens of thousands of Kurds celebrated a spring festival in Turkey's southeast Friday, and many chanted support for a Kurdish rebel group in a challenge to the Turkish state. Scattered clashes marred festivities in several cities. ( AP )
Authorities had increased security before the Nowruz festival in the predominantly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, deploying hundreds of riot police and armored personnel carriers. They did not intervene, even though some demonstrators waved images of jailed rebel chief Abdullah Ocalan, which is illegal.
Police videotaped people entering the festival area, and a military helicopter and several Turkish warplanes flew overhead. Kurdish activists usually use the festival to highlight demands for autonomy and other rights, and some past gatherings have ended in violence.
This year's celebrations followed a Turkish military incursion last month that targeted Kurdish guerrillas based in northern Iraq.
Turkish Kurds celebrate Nowruz, the Farsi word for new year, on March 21. People in Iran and many Central Asian republics also hold Nowruz ceremonies to mark the advent of spring.
Kurds, a non-Arab people distantly related to the Iranians, make up 20 percent of Turkey's population of at least 70 million.
In Diyarbakir, some youths chanted Ocalan's nickname in the refrain: "Long live President Apo."
Ocalan, jailed leader of the rebel Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, is serving a life term on an island prison off Istanbul. The PKK wants political and cultural autonomy for Kurds in southeastern Turkey, and the conflict has killed tens of thousands of people since it began in 1984.
At the close of the festival, dozens of Kurdish youths threw stones at police who took cover behind shields but did not respond. The group soon dispersed into side streets.
Skirmishes also broke out during similar festivities in the nearby province of Sanliurfa, where about 150 youths set up a barricade and threw stones and fire bombs at police. Police fired tear gas to break up the group.
At least nine police officers were injured and 16 people were detained, the state-run Anatolia news agency said.
In Agri, in eastern Turkey, youths shouting slogans in support of the PKK also threw stones at police, Anatolia said. And in Mardin, near the border with Syria, demonstrators hurled a fire bomb at a school, setting its roof on fire, the agency reported.
The pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party, believed by many Turks to be a political front for the PKK, organized the festival in Diyarbakir. The PKK's influence has diminished over the years, partly because of Turkish military crackdowns and a feeling among many Kurds that violence will not solve their problems.
Diyarbakir Mayor Osman Baydemir, a member of the Democratic Society Party, criticized the government's plans for economic and cultural measures to enhance the lives of Kurds in the region.
"Assimilation is a crime against humanity," Baydemir said. "We don't believe in this package, we don't think it is sufficient, we don't accept it."
The government plans to spend up to $12 billion on dam and irrigation projects in the next five years to improve agriculture in the mostly rural area and to launch a television channel with Kurdish-language broadcasts.
The European Union has said Turkey must relax cultural restrictions on Kurds and take other steps to improve their lives to meet the criteria for membership.