Bloodbath as police raid homes of militants

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The Independent Online

A year-long hunger strike by leftist Turkish militants became a bloodbath yesterday after police stormed three houses, trying to force the protesters to go to hospital.

A year-long hunger strike by leftist Turkish militants became a bloodbath yesterday after police stormed three houses, trying to force the protesters to go to hospital.

At least four people died after setting themselves on fire. Police said their bodies were found underneath their beds.

The lightning raids were the latest Turkish attempt to deal with a protest over jail conditions that has left more than 40 dead of starvation, further hurting the country's human rights record and sparking a series of fatal bomb explosions.

Riot police brandishing batons and tear gas canisters in the impoverished Kucuk Armutlu district of Istanbul broke into homes and dragged out protesters – some of whom were clearly weakened by months of hunger strike – carrying them to hospitals in waiting ambulances.

Armoured police vehicles and heavy construction machines smashed through barricades set up by militants around the two houses.

Metal bars on the windows of the hunger strikers' houses were twisted and broken anddoors torn from their hinges lay by the roadside.

Smoke billowed over the single-storey, whitewashed shacks overlooking the Bosphorus, as tear gas mingled with the fires set by the hunger strikers.

"Where is my daughter, did they burn her?" said Guldemir Ozen, looking for her daughter Madimak Ozen, one of the hunger strikers. "I don't know what happened to her."

A spokesman for the Turkey-based Human Rights Association said: "Police were firing their weapons at random."

Earlier reports said the bullets were fired into the air, but some news reports and eyewitnesses said police had fired into at least one of two houses where the hunger strikers were staging their protests.

The hunger strikers had earlier threatened to set themselves on fire if police intervened, but it was not immediately known if the dead were all hunger strikers or included some of their supporters.

The security forces would not say how many people they had detained and Istanbul hospital officials declined to give details of casualties admitted. The Anatolian news agency said six people had arrived at one hospital with injuries.

The hunger strikers have been taking minimal nutrition since late last year in protest at the introduction of new cell-based jails to replace large dormitory wards. The death toll from the hunger strikes has reached 42. The Turkish government says the new system was introduced to break the influence that radical political groups can have over large, chaotic dormitories.

Monday's raid was, in many ways a replay of a similar operation last December when authorities stormed jails across the country in a bid to end strikes and force the transfer of inmates to the new high-security jails. Two soldiers and 30 prisoners died in those raids.

Human rights groups have condemned the new system of near-isolation cells, confining up to three people to a cell, saying that the isolation leaves them open to abuse by warders.

Turkey's isolation cells contain a total 10,000 political prisoners, mostly leftists and Kurdish militants, a human rights abuse which is seen as a major stumbling block to the country ever joining the European Union.

But Turkish justice officials say the new jails with their smaller cells meet European standards and are needed.

"In the end, in the situation in which Turkey is in at the moment, it cannot go on running its prisons in a brutal and basically illegal way. It's going to have to change them sooner or later," said Jonathan Sugden of Human Rights Watch.

"My guess is that the Turkish government's view is that, well, by the time we have to run these prisons in a humane manner, we will have broken these people."

Many of the strikers come from rural parts of Turkey, and became involved in left-wing politics at university. One such radical, Ugue Bulbul, a member of the banned Revolutionary People's Liberation Party, blew himself up in central Istanbul outside a police station in September, killing himself, two policemen and a tourist, He had been released from prison in January where he had taken part in the hunger strike.

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