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Jailed leader calls for end of Kurdish hunger strike

By Ivan Watson and Gul Tuysuz, CNN
November 19, 2012 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jailed Kurdish leader calls for end to mass hunger strike
  • Leading Kurdish lawmaker endorses the message
  • Nearly every shop in the provincial capital is shuttered

Read a version of this story in Arabic.

Diyarbakir, Turkey (CNN) -- The jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party has called an end to a mass hunger strike in Turkey staged by Kurdish prison inmates and politicians.

"End the hunger strikes as soon as possible without any hesitation ... this action has reached its place and fulfilled its goals," Abdullah Ocalan said, the Kurdish Dicle News Agency reported Saturday.

Ocalan passed along that message to his brother Mehmet, who had been permitted by Turkish authorities to visit the notorious guerrilla leader on the island in the Marmara Sea where he has been kept in solitary confinement.

Mehmet Ocalan then relayed along the comment Saturday to protesters, some of whom have gone without solid food for 66 days:

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A leader of the main Kurdish nationalist party, Selahattin Demirtas, appeared to endorse the message.

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The Kurdish lawmaker announced on his Twitter feed that "the statement by Mr. Ocalan is a very important development... We support this statement...we hope that the prisoners will reconsider in light of the statement."

On Saturday night, after the entire predominantly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir echoed with the clangs of residents banging pots and pans in support of the hunger strikers, two Kurdish lawmakers had been allowed into one of the city's main prisons, presumably to meet with inmates who have been starving themselves, a spokesman for the hunger strikers told CNN

There was a huge police presence in front of a municipal building where at least 22 Kurdish politicians, including several lawmakers from the main Kurdish nationalist party and the elected mayor of Diyarbakir, have been staging the hunger strike.

The parliament members had joined a much larger mass hunger strike that started and spread through the Turkish penal system more than a month ago. More than 680 Kurdish inmates have now limited their diets to water, sugar, tea and salt.

Those on the hunger strike have issued several demands: Authorize Kurdish language education in schools, allow defendants to speak Kurdish while representing themselves in court and Ocalan's release from prison.

The problem is many Turks consider Ocalan the country's No. 1 terrorist. The movement he helped found decades ago has been fighting a guerrilla war against the Turkish state for 30 years, a conflict that has claimed more than 30,000 lives. Turkey, as well as the European Union and the United States, have labeled the Kurdistan Workers Party a terrorist organization.

On Saturday, the governor of Diyarbakir blamed the hunger strike and the street protests on the party.

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"The legal and civilian extensions of the terrorist organization are increasing the tensions on the streets," Mustafa Toprak, Diyarbakir governor, said in an interview with CNN.

He said police reinforcements had been brought into Diyarbakir to deal with what was said to be a two-day strike. He also said more than 100 people had been detained this week, as Kurds have organized nightly protests in Diyarbakir and other cities and towns throughout the largely Kurdish southeast.

Demonstrators appear to have adopted an unusual tactic to deal with the security forces.

Throughout the Kurdish region of Turkey, the overwhelming majority of demonstrators seen burning tires and overturning garbage bins were children younger than 15. Boys as young as 7 and 8 were seen torching barricades that had been dragged out to block city streets.

"Children are not terrorists," said Toprak, the Diyarbakir governor. "But the things they are doing, if they were committed by adults, would be considered terrorist acts."

According to a recent report by the nonprofit conflict mediation organization International Crisis Group, Turkish authorities have arrested more than 7,000 Kurdish activists on suspicion of terrorist activities in the past several years.

Gulten Kisanak, one of the Kurdish parliament members on hunger strike, said she and her 34 fellow lawmakers from the Kurdish BDP party were battling more than 750 legal cases against them in court, which could lead to more than 3,000 years in prison.

As barricades burned in the streets outside, Kisanak and her fellow hunger strikers gathered in a reception room decorated with a giant poster of Ocalan.

"We are willing to die," Kisanak vowed. And she repeated her demand for the release of Ocalan, a Kurdish leader she described as "a man of peace."

Turkey police crack down on Kurds

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