By Daren Butler and Jonny Hogg
At least 19 people were reported killed in riots across Turkey, the deadliest street unrest in years, after the Kurdish minority rose up in fury at the government’s refusal to protect a besieged Syrian town from Islamic State.
Street battles raged between Kurdish protesters and police across Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast, as the fallout from war in Syria and Iraq threatened to unravel the NATO member’s own delicate peace process. There were also clashes in the commercial hub Istanbul and capital Ankara.
Across the frontier, US-led air strikes appeared to have pushed Islamic State fighters back to the edges of the Syrian Kurdish border town of Kobani, which the militants have been poised to capture this week after a three-week siege.
Washington said its war planes, along with those of coalition ally the United Arab Emirates, had struck nine targets in Syria, including six near Kobani that hit Islamic State artillery and armoured vehicles. It also struck Iraq five times.
Nevertheless, Kobani remained under intense bombardment from Islamic State positions within sight of Turkish tanks that have so far done nothing to help.
US officials were quoted expressing impatience with the Turks for refusing to join the military coalition against Islamic State fighters who have seized much of Syria and Iraq. Turkey says it could join, but only if Washington agrees to use force against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as well as against the Sunni Muslim jihadists fighting against him.
Turkey’s own Kurds say President Tayyip Erdogan is stalling while their brethren are killed in Kobani.
Police fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse demonstrators who burnt cars and tyres. Authorities imposed curfews in at least five provinces, the first time such measures have been used widely since the early 1990s, local media said.
Ten people died in clashes in Diyarbakir, the largest Kurdish city in Turkey’s southeast, according to Agriculture Minister Mehdi Eker. In live televised comments, he said an all-day curfew imposed in the city from Tuesday night would be reviewed on Wednesday.
Pockets of protesters defying the curfew clashed with security forces there later on Wednesday, local media reported.
Others died in clashes between protesters and police in the eastern provinces of Mus, Siirt and Batman. DHA news agency reported a death toll of 19 from two days of clashes.
The Istanbul governor’s office reported 30 people wounded, including eight police officers, and 98 people detained in “illegal protests” in Turkey’s biggest city.
Unrest spread to other countries with Kurdish and Turkish populations. Police in Germany said 14 people were hurt in clashes there between Kurds and Islamists.
The unrest in Turkey, which has NATO’s second largest army, exposes the difficulty Washington has faced in creating a coalition of countries to intervene against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, two countries with complex, multi-sided civil wars in which every country in the region has a stake.
The advance by the jihadists of Islamic State in northern Syria drove 180,000 of the area’s mostly Kurdish inhabitants to flee into adjoining Turkey.
Islamic State fighters hoisted their black flag on the eastern edge of the town on Monday. Since then, US-led airstrikes have been redoubled, and the town’s defenders say fighters have been pushed back.
Intense gunfire and loud explosions could be heard on Wednesday morning from across the Turkish border, and huge plumes of grey smoke and dust rose above the town, where the United Nations says only a few hundred inhabitants remain.
“They are now outside the entrances of the city of Kobani. The shelling and bombardment was very effective and as a result of it, IS have been pushed from many positions,” Idris Nassan, deputy foreign minister of the Kurdish-run Kobani district administration, told Reuters by phone.
“This is their biggest retreat since their entry into the city and we can consider this as the beginning of the countdown of their retreat from the area.”
Kurdish media reported that YPG fighters had thwarted an attempted Islamic State car bombing on positions in Kobani, saying the vehicle had detonated before it reached its target.
An Islamic State source on Twitter claimed the attack had destroyed a police station where Kurdish forces were based. The attack could not be independently verified, but a huge explosion could be seen from across the Turkish border, sending a mushroom cloud high into the sky above the town.
Islamic State has been advancing on the strategically important town from three sides and pounding it with artillery despite dogged resistance from heavily outgunned Kurdish forces.
The Turkish parliament voted last week to authorise cross-border intervention, but Erdogan and his government have so far held back, saying they will join military action only as part of an alliance that also confronts Assad.
Erdogan wants the alliance to enforce a “no fly zone” to prevent Assad’s air force flying over Syrian territory near the Turkish border and create a safe area for an estimated 1.2 million Syrian refugees in Turkey to return. Otherwise, he says, Turkish military action would only make the situation worse.
Washington, which has so far managed to bomb Islamic State positions in Syria without Assad raising objections, has not agreed to expand the mission to confront the Syrian leader.
The conflict has already opened up a fissure in relations between the United States and Turkey, its most powerful ally in the area. US Vice President Joe Biden was forced to apologise last week after Erdogan took umbrage at comments Biden made at Harvard University, in which he blamed Turkey’s open borders for allowing Islamic State to bring in recruits.
An unnamed senior US official told the New York Times on Tuesday that there was “growing angst about Turkey dragging its feet to act to prevent a massacre less than a mile from its border”.
“This isn’t how a NATO ally acts while hell is unfolding a stone’s throw from their border,” the official said.
At the same time, official diplomacy intensified. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said US Secretary of State John Kerry had spoken with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Monday night and Tuesday morning, and said Turkey was “determining what larger role they will play”.
Retired US General John Allen, charged with building a coalition against Islamic State after it seized about a third of neighbouring Iraq, was due in Turkey this week.
Ankara said on Tuesday it had urged Washington to step up air strikes against Islamic State to halt its advance on Kobani.
But, while taking in Kobani’s refugees and treating its wounded, Turkey has deep reservations about deploying its own army in Syria. Beyond becoming a target for Islamic State, which is active along much of Syria’s 900 km border with Turkey, it fears being sucked into Syria’s three-year-old civil war and perhaps even having to confront Syria’s formidable army.
It also distrusts Syria’s Kurds, whom it sees as allies of its own Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which waged a decades-long insurgency for Kurdish autonomy in which around 40,000 people were killed.
The PKK’s jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan has said any massacre of Kurds in Kobani would doom a fragile peace process with the Turkish authorities, one of the most important initiatives of Erdogan’s decade in power.
The street protests across Turkey were already making the prospect of reconciliation with nationalists seem more remote, as protesters set fire to Turkish flags and attacked statues of the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Selahattin Demirtas, co-chair of the HDP, Turkey’s leading Kurdish party, condemned such acts as “provocations carried out to prevent help coming to the east (Kobani) from the west”.