Left wing inmates still resist against Turkish soldiers

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The Independent Online

Troops cautiously closed in on more than 400 armed left-wing inmates in Istanbul's Umraniye prison Friday as Turkish authorities raised the total death toll from the prison riots that started four days ago to 22.

Troops cautiously closed in on more than 400 armed left-wing inmates in Istanbul's Umraniye prison Friday as Turkish authorities raised the total death toll from the prison riots that started four days ago to 22.

During the night, smoke billowed from the Umraniye prison as inmates inside set fire to mattresses and blankets, resisting calls to surrender.

As daylight came, soldiers in riot gear advanced further into the prison where 423 leftist inmates barricaded themselves inside a conference hall, private NTV television showed Friday. The station said a snow storm was slowing down the soldiers.

A day earlier the inmates vowed to fight until "death or victory," as troops tossed tear gas grenades through holes drilled in the roof in a move to end the siege. They are the last group to hold out after 158 prisoners in another penitentiary turned themselves in Thursday.

"We hope this meaningless action will be ended before it turns into madness," Justice Minister Hikmet Sami Turk said.

The riots began on Tuesday when some 5,000 soldiers stormed 20 prisons to end a two-month hunger strike by left-wing inmates against new cell-type prisons and regain control over the communal wards. More than 640 inmates were immediately incarcerated in new prisons, where the inmates claim they would be vulnerable to abuse by guards.

Authorities said two more inmates had died from the clashes, boosting the total death toll to 20 prisoners and two soldiers. In addition, four soldiers and 102 inmates were injured, they said.

Ozgur Tayad, a prisoners' support group, said the death toll was much higher but gave no figures. Most of the inmates set themselves ablaze, burning to death, rather than surrendering. At least five of the bodies bore gun shots, an autopsy report revealed.

"Death robots," headlined Milliyet newspaper on Friday, saying that left-wing groups pushed the inmates to death by forcing them to "death contracts," found during searches in recently captured wards. The paper also printed pictures of makeshift gas masks used by the inmates.

The Interior Ministry said the inmates in Umraniye were armed with unspecified types of firearms and gas canisters turned flame-throwers. The military has also been trying to break the resistance of the inmates by calling on them through loudspeakers to think about their families.

The government has been insisting on ending a dormitory-ward system that got out of control over the past decade. Soldiers found guns, computers and mobile phones in some recently captured prison wards. Prisoners apparently smuggled in cellular telephones and weapons by bribing or threatening guards, some of whom earn only dlrs 250 a month.

The government said an amnesty law that went into effect Friday would set free some 35,000 inmates and help authorities to divide wards into one- or three-person cells like in the newly built prisons.

The inmates are expected to be released within a month. The amnesty does not apply to prisoners who opposed the state, such as Islamic, Kurdish or leftist militants.

Authorities say the prisons have become "headquarters" of outlawed groups, with political groups running their own prison wards, which house up to 100 inmates.

Police reports have said some killings or bombings were carried out following telephone orders from the prisons.

Turkish newspapers have been filled with pictures from before the assault showing prisoners living in wards decorated with rebel banners. In some cases, rebels wearing red headbands were seen lining up and giving clenched-fist salutes to their leaders. In one instance, rebels tore down the walls of a ward so that male and female prisoners could live together.

Many of the leftist inmates are linked to the Revolutionary People's Liberation Army-Front, a group that aims to establish a Marxist republic in Turkey. The group has claimed responsibility for the assassinations of generals, policemen and government officials and has targeted U.S. military and diplomatic missions.