Fears grow for Kurds trapped in besieged town in southeastern Turkey
CIZRE – (Sirnak Province) - The basement of apartment block "23" in the flashpoint town of Cizre in southeastern Turkey has become the focus of a bloody standoff as fighting rages on between security forces and Kurdish rebels.
More than two dozen wounded Kurds have been trapped in the cellar of the largely ruined building in the besieged town for almost two weeks, and pro-Kurdish lawmakers say fears are mounting for their lives.
Cizre has been under a punishing curfew for six weeks as the Turkish army pursues a relentless campaign against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in a bid to root out rebels from the streets of the mainly Kurdish town.
A bitter war of words has erupted between the Turkish authorities and Kurdish politicians over the fate of the residents feared to be without medical care, fresh water or electricity since January 23.
Selahattin Demirtas, co-leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democracy Party (HDP), said Tuesday that six people trapped in the Cizre basement had already died, either of thirst or the loss of blood.
He claimed ambulances were being blocked from accessing the basement.
"We have no idea if those still stranded are alive or have fled," he said.
HDP lawmaker Faysal Sariyildiz said he had established contact with the basement's occupants via text message, but that communications had been cut off since Saturday.
Posting photos of the injured on Twitter, some sleeping next to decomposing bodies, Sariyildiz said several people had lost consciousness and at least four others were on the brink of death as of Saturday.
He said people inside had told him the floors above them had collapsed because of heavy shelling on the four-storey block.
Among those trapped were two teenagers, according to Sariyildiz.
HDP MP Osman Baydemir claimed security forces had attacked the building Saturday just as survivors were being rescued, based on a 16-minute phone conversation with a trapped party member.
"What was the reason behind the armed operation during the evacuation of building?" he asked the interior ministry in a parliamentary question on Wednesday. "Who gave the orders?"
He said at least 25 people were in the cellar, including at least 15 wounded.
HDP lawmakers have been taking turns to go on a hunger strike since Thursday to protest at the failure to evacuate the group.
But President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday angrily denied ambulances were not being allowed in, and accused the hunger-striking lawmakers of behaving like the "servants" of the PKK.
"These (claims) are all lies. There are always ambulances there. They are deliberately not bringing the wounded out," he said.
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Wednesday the residents were refusing to come out to receive treatment and that snipers were opening fire on ambulances from inside the building.
"Where are the wounded?" he asked? "There are probably no wounded."
Interior Minister Efkan Ala on Tuesday claimed that PKK commanders were among those hiding in the basement as well as another 100 buildings in Cizre.
"This is an urgent situation the Turkish government needs to address imminently to prevent loss of life," Emma Sinclair-Webb, the Turkey representative of Human Rights Watch, said last week.
On Wednesday, shells were still exploding on the deserted streets of Cizre, local residents said by phone.
Many are sheltering in cramped basements, unable to retrieve or bury their dead.
Footage on state media this week showed security forces searching heavily damaged buildings, with shops and homes reduced to rubble, apparently by mortar fire.
The Turkish government says the operations in Cizre and two other towns in the southeast are necessary to root out militants who were effectively taking over the areas by building barricades and digging trenches.
The offensive in the southeast marks a new escalation in the decades-old conflict with the PKK after a fragile truce collapsed in July.
The army says it has killed about 500 rebels in Cizre alone since the operation started December 14. But with the curfew-hit area closed to the media, it has not been possible to independently verify the figures.
The HDP said last week at least 200 civilians had been killed since hostilities resumed in July, including 70 children, and that as many as 100,000 of Cizre's 120,000 residents have fled.
The United Nations on Monday called on Ankara to investigate the suspected shooting of a group of civilians in Cizre, caught in "extremely shocking" video footage.
The footage, apparently shot by a cameraman named Refik Tekin about two weeks ago, captures the moment a group of unarmed people holding white flags being shot as they are observed at a distance by security forces.
Lying wounded on the ground, Tekin continued shooting the chaotic scene, his own blood apparently spilling in front of the lens, with what looks like dead bodies on the ground in front of him.
"I am urging the Turkish authorities to respect the fundamental rights of civilians in its security operations," UN rights chief Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein told reporters in Geneva.