Turkish military operations in the majority Kurdish town of Cizre have ended, officials said on Thursday, as the leader of the main Kurdish political bloc accused security forces of "massacring" civilians.
Interior Minister Efkan Ala made the announcement Thursday afternoon, adding that a 24-hour curfew, which has been enforced in parts of the southeastern town since mid-December would remain in place.
Cizre has seen some of the worst of the violence between militants linked with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and security forces since fighting erupted in the predominantly Kurdish southeast last July.
Clashes were still ongoing as of Thursday morning, with heavy gunfire heard across the town, Turkey's CIHAN news agency reported. The army said on Wednesday that one soldier had been killed there and three others wounded the previous day. Authorities say they've also killed scores of militants in the past month.
At least nine civilians died in fighting over the weekend, according to the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP), while officials said a further 16 militants were also killed, Reuters reported.
HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtas has accused security forces of committing "mass murder" in Cizre. His comments refer to the fate of a number of people said to be sheltering in Cizre basements. Late last week some opposition Turkish newspapers reported that 60 in one such building had been killed during a security operations.
Demirtas described a government "massacre" in Cizre during a party meeting on Tuesday and accused security forces of attempting to cover up a mass killing by spreading bodies across a number of other sites in the district.
He also said a further 70-90 people had been unable to leave basements in the town for 20 days and said that they were largely local residents or activists from elsewhere in the country. A number were wounded, he added, but said security forces believe there are militants among them and have shelled the buildings.
Government figures deny the claims. Health Minister Mehmet Muezzinoglu said on Wednesday that his office was working all-out to help injured in the southeast, but said the PKK had fired on ambulances and thrown Molotov cocktails, according to Daily Zaman, rendering 29 of the vehicles inoperable.
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Monday that operations had been careful to avoid civilian casualties and said many of the injured were "terrorists." "A picture is painted as if there were many injured in the building and many deaths occurred because of the operation that was conducted in there," he said during a joint press conference with German chancellor Angela Merkel, according to the state run Anadolu Agency.
"Today, a statement was issued by our Sirnak governorate. Only that should be trusted. Neither the said situation nor the existence of the injured were confirmed."
Well over 550 people, including more than 150 civilians have now been killed in the southeast since a temporary ceasefire with the PKK collapsed last year, the worst toll in 20 years.
Violence first erupted in July after a suicide bomber trained by the Islamic State (IS) militant group killed 33 pro-Kurdish activists at a cultural center in the border town of Suruc. Many Kurds blamed Turkish security forces for laxity or collusion, and in the immediate aftermath, the PKK — classed as a terror organization by Turkey, the US, and European Union — shot dead two police officers in a nearby town, claiming they'd collaborated with IS.
Violence spiraled. Four days after the bombing, Ankara announced a two-pronged "war on terror," claimed to focus on both the PKK and IS, but concentrated almost entirely on the militant Kurds. Attack jets began an ongoing series of airstrikes on the group's positions in Turkey and neighboring northern Iraq that state media claims have killed hundreds, but PKK commanders say have had little effect. In turn, they launched a number of assaults on army and police targets, leaving dozens dead.
Security forces simultaneously embarked on largescale security operations in the southeast, escalating military activity, arresting hundreds in Kurdish areas, and imposing strict curfews that left civilians trapped in their homes. In response, some residents dug ditches and built barricades to stop police vehicles entering, and armed youth known as the YDG-H, which PKK leaders have told VICE News are not under their control, fought police with guns, rockets, and Molotov cocktails.
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