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Turkish zealots kill 40 in 'Verses' attack: Militants burn down hotel in riot over Rushdie's book

AN ANGRY crowd of Islamic fundamentalists burned down a hotel in eastern Turkey yesterday, killing 40 people and injuring their target, Aziz Nesin, the translator into Turkish of Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses.

Events began to get out of hand after Muslim Friday prayers in the conservative eastern town of Sivas, with a crowd of thousands gathering to protest the presence in the city of Mr Nesin. Police fired shots over the heads of demonstrators waving angry fists and called in army reinforcements. But they were unable to prevent parts of the crowd storming and setting on fire the hotel where Mr Nesin was staying.

Mr Nesin was saved by a fire engine's ladder, but at least 40 people were killed and 60 injured by thick smoke. Mr Nesin was only slightly injured. Many were feared to be among the group of authors and intellectuals who were with Mr Nesin at a leftist symposium in the town in honor of a 16th century poet hanged for defying Turkey's Ottoman rulers.

A television report said most of the victims in the Madimak hotel died by asphyxiation from dense smoke. Many others were injured in the fire and earlier clashes between demonstrators and police. About 20 people, including the town's police chief, were hurt in clashes when the demonstrators started hurling stones.

The exact circumstances around the burning of the hotel were not clear. Mr Nesin said he had received many death threats for translating The Satanic Verses, parts of which he published in his left-wing daily Aydinlik. Protesters said Mr Nesin had made blasphemous remarks about Islam in a speech on Thursday when he said he did 'not recognise Mohammed as a 'prophet' ' and had doubts about the origin of the Koran.

In London, Rushdie issued a statement condemning the violence. 'I abhor the attack on the hotel in Sivas and consider it to be a terrorist atrocity,' he said. But he added: 'However Mr Aziz Nesin's newspaper published extracts from The Satanic Verses without my permission and against my wishes . . . I consider his newspaper's publication of The Satanic Verses to be a piratical act, and while I am appalled by the violence that has resulted, I am not involved in Mr Nesin's actions. What he has done is a manipulative act.'

The outrage was the second blamed on Muslim radicals in two days. On Wednesday, unidentified men set ablaze a hotel in the city of Van, killing 11 people, including two Russian women. Islamic fundamentalists had been threatening Russian and other women before against using the hotel as a base for prostitution.

The arson attacks could not have come at a worse time for Turkey, which is in a state of flux following the death in April of President Turgut Ozal and the attempts by the new Prime Minister, Tansu Ciller, to consolidate power. Turkey is also reeling under a big upsurge in violence related to the country's nine- year-old Kurdish insurgency that has killed more than 30 in the past two days. Kurdish militants had also been blamed for a first attack this week on hotels in the southern resort of Antalya, injuring 12 foreign tourists, although they have denied the charge.

Radical attacks by crowds are usually confined to rare, set-piece, US- flag burning affairs outside Istanbul mosques. The scenes in Sivas were a shocking awakening for a country that prizes its Westernising elite and a dynamic, modernising economy.

The main pro-Islamic Welfare Party usually polls 10 to 15 per cent in elections in Turkey, a secular state since it was founded in 1923. But there has been a marked Islamisation of urban society in recent years as a result of the arrival of rural immigrants and Muslim educational and welfare associations. But the latest upsurge of violence and a spate of killings of secular writers since 1990 shows that other more dangerous fundamentalist currents are also at work.