ANKARA, Turkey – Kurdish rebels on Thursday claimed responsibility for the ambush killing of seven Turkish soldiers, a Kurdish news agency said. The attack caused outrage and was seen as a blow to the government's efforts to reconcile with minority Kurds.
Pro-Kurdish Firat news agency, citing the Kurdish rebel group PKK, said a unit that was acting on its own initiative carried out Monday's assault near the central city of Tokat — far away from the Kurdish-dominated southeast. Three soldiers were also wounded in the rocket-propelled grenade attack on a military vehicle.
Turkish troops have killed nine Kurdish rebels in recent clashes in the southeastern provinces of Mardin and Hakkari, bordering Iran and Iraq, the state-run Anatolia news agency said Thursday. The agency did not say when the clashes took place. Military authorities were not available for comment.
Monday's rebel ambush has added to tensions in Turkey. Kurdish youths have been staging violent streets protests over the past few weeks to denounce Kurdish rebel chief Abdullah Ocalan's new prison conditions.
The protests intensified after Turkey's supreme court began deliberating whether to shut down the country's pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party on charges of links to the outlawed PKK, or Kurdish Workers' Party. A verdict could come as early as Friday.
Ahmet Turk, leader of the pro-Kurdish party, expressed sorrow after the PKK claim. The rebels are regarded as terrorists by the United States and the European Union, but the party has refrained from denouncing the group in such terms. Instead, it has called on the government to negotiate with the rebels and to introduce an amnesty for the guerrilla leaders.
Kurdish rebel supporters pressed ahead with violent demonstrations on Thursday, clashing with police in the eastern city of Van, the state-run Anatolia news agency said. Hundreds of protesters armed with stones, firebombs and fireworks waged street battles in the Kurdish-dominated city, near the border with Iran, television footage showed.
Police retaliated with pepper gas in an effort to disperse crowds and detained 25 protesters, the Anatolia news agency said. Four police officers and two protesters were slightly injured during the incidents, it said.
In recent violence, one student died from gunshot wounds in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir while another died Monday of severe burns from a firebomb attack by Kurdish militants on a city bus in Istanbul.
Ocalan, who is serving life in prison on an island near Istanbul, was moved to a newly built high-security jail, which his supporters claim is smaller than his previous cell. The Justice Ministry said the difference is only minimal and that the new prison is an improvement, where Ocalan will be able to socialize with newly transferred inmates.
Ocalan has been held in solitary confinement since his capture in 1999.
His guerrillas have been fighting for autonomy in the southeast since 1984. The government recently announced steps to reconcile with minority Kurds by expanding greater cultural rights in an effort to end the conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people.
But Kurdish politicians insist the government should open dialogue with Ocalan for a realistic solution.
Kurds make up about 20 percent of Turkey's more than 70 million people.