Top Kurdish Militant Is Among Three Slain in Paris
Thomas Samson/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
By DAN BILEFSKY, ALAN COWELL and SEBNEM ARSU
Published: January 10, 2013— Three Kurdish women, including a founding member of a leading militant group fighting for autonomy in Turkey, were shot to death at a Kurdish institute in central Paris, police officials said on Thursday, potentially jeopardizing efforts to negotiate a cease-fire in the decades-old conflict.
News reports identified the women as Sakine Cansiz, a founder of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known by the initials P.K.K.; Fidan Dogan, the head of the institute and a representative of the Kurdistan National Congress, an umbrella group of Kurdish organizations in Europe; and Leyla Soylemez, a young Kurdish activist.
The women’s bodies were discovered shortly before 2 a.m. on Thursday, according to Agnès Thibault-Lecuivre, a spokeswoman for the Paris prosecutor’s office, who added that the antiterror department of the prosecutor’s office would oversee the investigation. She confirmed that Ms. Dogan, born in 1984, and Ms. Soylemez, born in 1988, were victims in the killings, but declined to confirm the identity of the third woman.
Asked about the motive, she said, “No hypothesis can be excluded at this stage.”
Visiting the crime scene on Thursday, Interior Minister Manuel Valls called the shootings “intolerable” and said they were “without doubt an execution.” The violence at the Kurdish Institute of Paris, in the city’s 10th Arrondissement near the Gare du Nord railroad station, seemed to open a new chapter in the often murky annals of Kurdish exile life.
In recent years, Turkey has sought to clamp down on the activities of Kurdish activists outside Turkey. Sizable exile communities in France, Germany, Belgium and Denmark have established civic and media organizations that Kurdish officials say are a refuge from Turkish censorship.
Turkey has accused some of the institutions of being fronts for separatist activities or terrorism.
Analysts in Turkey said it seemed to be no coincidence that the killings had come just days after reports of peace negotiations involving Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the P.K.K., who was incarcerated in 1999 in a fortresslike prison on the western Turkish island of Imrali.
While Kurdish militants blamed Turkey for the shootings in Paris, Turkish officials said the women could have been killed because of feuding within the P.K.K.
Huseyin Celik, the deputy chairman of the ruling party in Turkey, said the episode seemed to be part of an internal dispute but offered no evidence to support the claim.
“Whenever in Turkey we reach the stage of saying, ‘Friend, give up this business, let the weapons be silent,’ whenever a determination emerges on this, such incidents happen,” Mr. Celik told reporters in Ankara. “Is there one P.K.K.? I’m not sure of that.”
French police officials said a murder investigation had been opened. The bodies and three shell casings were found in a room at the institute. The women were all said to have held Turkish passports.
The P.K.K. has been fighting a bitter guerrilla war against the Turkish authorities for almost three decades to reinforce demands for greater autonomy. The conflict, which has claimed 40,000 lives, is fueled by competing notions of national identity rooted in the founding of modern Turkey by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923 on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.
Turkey, the United States and the European Union have labeled the P.K.K. a terrorist organization, but sympathy for the group and its goals remains widespread in many towns in Turkey’s rugged southeast.
Restive Kurdish minorities span a broad region embracing areas of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran and parts of the former Soviet Union. Regional turmoil in recent years has emboldened Kurdish separatists inspired by the example of the Iraqi Kurds, who control an autonomous zone. Turkey also fears that the civil war in neighboring Syria could strengthen the separatist yearnings of Kurds there, feeding Kurdish activism in Turkey.
The killings, which apparently took place Wednesday, inspired hundreds of Kurdish exiles to gather outside the institute on Thursday, chanting, “We are all P.K.K.!” and accusing Turkey of assassinating the three women, abetted by the French president, François Hollande.
The bodies were discovered by Kurdish exiles who had become concerned about the whereabouts of the women.
The victims had been alone in the building on Wednesday and could not be reached by telephone in the late afternoon, according to Leon Edart, who manages the center. Mr. Edart, speaking to French reporters, suggested that the victims opened the door to their killer or killers.
An organization called the Federation of Kurdish Associations in France, representing many of the estimated 150,000 Kurdish exiles in the country, said in a statement that the women might have been killed on Wednesday afternoon with weapons equipped with silencers.
The Firat news agency, which is close to the P.K.K., said two of the women had been shot in the head and one in the stomach. Firat quoted Mehmet Ulker, the head of the Kurdish representative group in France, as saying: “A couple of colleagues saw bloodstains at the door. When they broke the door open and entered they saw the three women had been executed.”
Most of the Kurdish exiles in France are from Turkey. Their presence dates to the mid-1960s, when migrant workers from Turkey began arriving in France.
The killings came against a complex political backdrop after the Turkish government opened talks with the political wing of the P.K.K. in Oslo last year. The negotiations faltered after a recent surge of violence in southeastern Turkey that prompted complaints from nationalist Turks that the authorities should not talk to the guerrilla fighters.
In the absence of any clear-cut military outcome, democracy advocates in Turkey have been pressing for a political settlement that would give greater rights to the Kurds, who account for around 15 million of Turkey’s 74 million people. The Turkish government has introduced a series of measures to improve relations with Kurds, including starting a Kurdish public television channel and introducing private Kurdish-language courses. But Kurdish activists want the rights of minority Kurds to be enshrined in a new constitution.
In a speech on Wednesday, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey said the negotiations were being conducted on the Turkish side by senior intelligence officials.
While Mr. Ocalan, the P.K.K. leader, has a powerful following among the rebels, he was denied a role in earlier political talks. But, analysts say, Turkish officials are hoping that his participation in the current negotiations, authorized by the state, has enhanced the prospects of a breakthrough.
Turkish news reports have said the government wants the rebels to lay down their arms without preconditions and send fighters with a record of violence into exile in Europe, leaving other Kurdish representatives to join Turkish political life. But analysts say any further negotiations could be sabotaged by opponents if it appeared that talks were making firm progress.
Sinan Ulgen, a Turkish expert and visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, said the most likely explanation was that the killings were the product of factional infighting within the P.K.K. involving more militant and hawkish elements who want to destabilize the talks and derail any peace deal.
“To me these killings are no coincidence,” Mr. Ulgen said by telephone from Istanbul. “They are the first signs that factions are not happy with the peace process and are intent on trying to sabotage a deal.”
Other analysts said the killings could be the work of extreme Turkish nationalists, some of whom oppose negotiations that would lead to Turkey granting Kurds further rights and autonomy.