Bomb targets PM's party as Turkey struggles with Kurdish separatists

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The Independent Online

A bomb ripped through an office of the party of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish Prime Minister, as he battled to contain a tide of violence which has claimed 16 lives following protests from Kurdish separatists.

The blast in Istanbul yesterday injured at least two people, shattering windows up to the third floor at the Justice and Development Party's office in the city's Esenyurt district.

A militant group called the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons claimed responsibility. The group, which also claimed responsibility for a separate bomb in Istanbul on Friday, has singled out the Prime Minister and his party as targets.

Suspected Kurdish rebels also killed three soldiers in an ambush in a mountainous area of south-eastern Turkey, while two other soldiers died after stepping on land mines believed to have been planted by the rebels.

A government crack-down against Kurdish separatists has coincided with alarm abroad at the drift of Mr Erdogan's government, which has been tilting policy towards Islamic voters in the run-up to elections. Diplomats are worried that, instead of pursuing reforms, Mr Erdogan is pandering to Islamic sentiment. "We are in a pre-electoral phase," said one, "and he needs to deliver more to his original supporters on issues related to Islamic values."

The European commissioner for Enlargement, Olly Rehn, has warned that the EU may be heading for a "train crash" in membership negotiations with Ankara over Turkish refusal to open ports and airports to Cypriot-registered ships and aircraft. It is the ever-divisive Kurdish issue, however, which has provoked the violence and European diplomats blame the government for many of the difficulties. Fighting in the south-east, which left 37,000 people dead, largely ended in 1999 after Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), was captured and the government proposed economic reforms for the region.

Critics argue that Mr Erdogan has failed to address the Kurdish problem, implementing only minimal reform after raising hopes of concessions during a visit to the region last summer. That has in turn allowed Kurdish separatists to exploit strong feelings of anger over high unemployment, poverty and lack of autonomy and cultural rights.

Some fear that the increasingly volatile political climate could make Mr Erdogan vulnerable to political interference from Turkey's powerful military, which favours tough action.

Rioting began after funerals for four Kurdish guerrillas in the south-east and brought violence to Istanbul, where four people have died in the past week. One person was killed in a bomb attack claimed by a Kurdish group, and three others died after masked men threw petrol bombs at a packed bus. In street clashes across the country this week, thousands of protesters have hurled stones and petrol bombs at police who have responded with tear gas and live ammunition.

The government has deployed 5,000 troops with Sikorsky and Cobra helicopters to the area. Itlaunched an operation on Gabbar mountain, in the Sirnak region, last week to stop guerrillas crossing the nearby border with Iraq.

The EU regards the separatist PKK as a terrorist group, but is increasingly concerned by the direction of Mr Erdogan's policy since Turkey began negotiations on EU entry last October. Since then the pace of reform has slackened as the Prime Minister seeks to placate supporters in his Islamic-rooted party.

Mr Erdogan's support for the head of an Islamic finance house as Turkey's next central bank governor has rung alarm bells in Brussels.

European diplomats expect the Prime Minister to try to force through measures allowing headscarves to be worn in universities, and to increase access to higher education for students from religious schools.