Young Elif’s death fans Turkish-Kurdish tensions
Istanbul - The death of a 9-year-old girl during heavy fighting between security forces and Kurdish rebels in southeastern Turkey has become a political football in the campaign before upcoming parliamentary elections.
Elif Simsek was killed September 27th when a shell hit her family’s house in Bismil. Five other people in the house were injured. The bar association in the nearby city of Diyarbakir called for an independent inquiry into the incident but with tensions between the police and Kurdish militants running high, no investigation has begun.
Both sides in the Kurdish conflict, which reignited in late July when a two-year ceasefire broke down, blamed the other for the child’s death. Authorities said a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) was fired by members of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), who were targeting police vehicles at a roadblock near the house. They said security forces do not use RPGs. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said “terrorists who fired at police with a rocket launcher killed our 9-year-old girl Elif”.
Ali Simsek, an uncle of Elif’s and a Kurdish activist, said at the girl’s funeral that Turkish security forces were committing “massacres” against Kurds. Another family member told pro-Kurdish media that police had fired directly on Elif’s house. Pictures from the house showed blood-splattered walls in the room where Elif died. On Twitter, PKK supporters said the “barbaric Turkish state” had killed the girl.
Bismil, like other towns in Turkey’s south-east, has become a stage for a power struggle between the government and the PKK. In recent months, rebel units declared several towns to be “autonomous”, digging trenches and erecting roadblocks to keep the police and army out. Security forces responded by sealing off cities and introducing curfews.
The fighting marks a new stage in the PKK’s long-running bid for Kurdish self-rule in Anatolia that started when the rebels took up arms against Ankara in 1984. More than 40,000 people have died in the conflict. Peace talks between Ankara and jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan yielded the ceasefire that went into effect in 2013 but negotiations have been suspended because of the surge in violence.
As the country prepares for snap elections on November 1st, the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), Turkey’s main legal Kurdish party, have emerged as the main rivals in the Kurdish area.
The election was called because the regular vote in June produced a hung parliament.
One focus of the AKP campaign is trying to win back voters of conservative and anti-PKK Kurds who sided with the HDP in June, helping the Kurdish party win 13% of the nationwide vote.
With the election looming and almost daily clashes in the south-east, the Kurdish conflict has become the main issue on voters’ minds. A recent survey by polling firm Metropoll indicated that 42.2% of voters asked said they regarded the Kurdish violence as the country’s most pressing problem, far ahead of issues such as unemployment and inflation. AKP officials said polls are showing an increase of support for their party.
Erdogan is barred from party politics by the constitution because of his position but has still been campaigning openly for the AKP. He denounced the PKK and suspected rebel supporters among Kurds.
He used a speech opening the new session of parliament on October 1st to appeal to Kurdish voters to turn away from the PKK and, by association, from the HDP. “The faith, moral values and honour of my Kurdish brothers do not comply with such an organisation,” Erdogan said.
HDP deputies left the chamber in protest during Erdogan’s address.
In his speech, the president cited the death of Elif Simsek and other children killed in Kurdish clashes as examples for the PKK’s cruelty. “My Kurdish brothers bear the brunt of terror” by the PKK, Erdogan said. “There can be no connection between my Kurdish brothers and those who have killed Elif Simsek, Yasin Boru, Firat Simpil.”
Yasin Boru, 16, was killed in 2014 during Kurdish riots that the government blamed on the HDP and the PKK. Firat Simpil, 13, died in a PKK bombing in August. Pro-government media reported that the PKK had abducted more than 300 teenagers to fill their ranks.
Rebels have accepted responsibility in some cases of civilian deaths. Murat Karayilan, a leading PKK commander, apologised for the death of Firat Simpil and that of Abdullah Biroglu, a doctor killed by rebels guarding a roadblock in Diyarbakir province.
However, HDP leaders say Elif’s death was the result of ruthless operations by the security forces. “We will remain upright like Elif,” party co-chairwoman Figen Yuksekdag wrote on her Twitter account. Referring to Erdogan’s presidential palace and the ruling party, she condemned “terror by the palace and the AKP”.