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Turkish Police Detain 400 After Kurdish Demos - 2002-03-21

Turkish authorities have detained about 400 people after police clashed with Kurds defying a government ban on celebrations of the Kurdish New Year.

Demonstrators chanting Kurdish nationalist slogans attacked police with sticks and stones in Istanbul. Authorities tried to disperse crowds gathered in several districts to celebrate the Kurdish New Year, known as Newroz.

Istanbul's governor, citing security reasons, had banned celebrations in Turkey's largest city. Istanbul is home to thousands of ethnic-Kurd migrants from the country's southeastern provinces.

The clashes erupted after a crowd in Istanbul's Topkapi neighborhood defied police orders to disperse. Many revelers were carrying the banned red, green, and yellow Kurdish flag and chanted slogans in support of the imprisoned Kurdish separatist leader, Abdullah Ocalan.

At least 11 policemen were said to be injured, and more than 100 Kurds were taken into police custody.

Violent clashes were also reported between police and demonstrators in Mersin, a Mediterranean port city. Mersin has had a steady influx of Kurds fleeing a 15-year separatist rebellion led by Abdullah Ocalan's Kurdistan Workers' Party, the PKK.

At least one person was reported killed in Mersin when he was run over by an armored personnel carrier.

But elsewhere in the country, Newroz celebrations were relatively peaceful.

In Diyarbakir, the largest Kurdish-dominated city, hundreds of thousands of Kurds wearing traditional costumes gathered for festivities organized by the pro-Kurdish People's Democracy Party. Security forces backed by armored personnel carriers looked on as local musicians sang Kurdish songs and frenzied crowds clapped wildly and danced along.

In the capital, Ankara, the local governor authorized celebrations on the condition that revelers did not chant Kurdish language slogans and did not burn tires, used as a substitute for the customary bonfire lit to mark the occasion.

Newroz marks the awakening of nature at the March 21 equinox and is celebrated by a wide range of ethnic and religious groups ranging from the Shia in Iran to ethnic Turks in Central Asia. Scholars remain divided on the festival's origins and the Kurds have long claimed it as their New Year.

Newroz festivities in Turkey have often been marred by violence between Kurds and government forces. The issue of Kurdish ethnicity and culture remains highly sensitive in Turkey.

At the height of the PKK rebellion in 1992, Newroz celebrations turned deadly after security forces opened fire at demonstrators in two southeastern towns. About 50 demonstrators were killed.

Violence in the Kurdish dominated-regions has largely eased since 1999. That is when the PKK declared a unilateral ceasefire and renounced its independence campaign following the capture of their leader Abdullah Ocalan in Kenya by Turkish special forces.

Many Kurds hoped at the time that the PKK's overtures would encourage Turkish authorities to relax restrictions on Kurdish language and culture.

But Turkish officials fear that easing bans on Kurdish language broadcasting, education, and other forms of cultural expression will fan separatist sentiment among Turkey's estimated 12 million Kurds.