Residents return to flashpoint town in southeastern Turkey, find it destroyed

Residents returned to the flashpoint town of Cizre, in southeastern Turkey, Wednesday to find many of their homes destroyed and at least one body still lying inside a destroyed house.

A first wave of arrivals reached the town at the break of dawn, their vehicles loaded with personal belongings and, in many cases, children, after authorities partially lifted a 24-hour curfew that had been imposed to facilitate security operations against Kurdish militants.

Police carefully inspected their documents as well as the contents of their cars and bags as they trickled into the town near the banks of the Tigris river.

The level of damage in some neighborhoods evoked the early days of military conflict in neighboring Syria with buildings gutted by shelling or partially collapsed. Shell casings littered the streets of the Sur neighborhood where residents made a grisly discovery — the corpse of an unidentifiable male.

The stench of death also rose from the rubble of a collapsed building in the same area. Residents said the basement had been used a shelter and that it was demolished by the security forces.

"Those who did this are not humans," said Cizre resident Serif Ozem. "What took place here is a second Kobane in a country that is supposed to be a democracy." Kobane is a predominantly Kurdish town in northern Syria that suffered a brutal siege at the hands of the Islamic State group.

In the battle-scarred Sur neighborhood several shops and homes had their walls blasted open, gaping craters offering a peek into the daily lives disrupted by the curfew imposed on Dec. 14. Windows were shattered and doors unhinged, the smell of gunpowder still clinging to the morning breeze.

The round-the-clock curfew was scaled down Wednesday, although it will still hold between 7:30 p.m. and 5 a.m. The reprieve comes three weeks after authorities declared the successful conclusion of military operations to stamp out rebels linked to the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK.

Curfews remain in place in the historic district of the main Kurdish city of Diyarbakir — which is also called Sur — and in Idil, a district in Sirnak province, where Turkish forces are continuing their operations against Kurdish militants.

In Diyarbakir, an improvised explosive device went off prematurely, killing a suspected bomber and wounding four children, the governor's office said. It said authorities believe the man, who had previously been detained for links to the Kurdish rebels, detonated the bomb accidently on Monday as he was carrying it.

In Cizre, Ayse Magi, a mother of five, inspected the damage done to her modest home with tears in her eyes. Two mortars had punctured the ceiling of her bathroom and hallway. She is among many residents who were displaced by the fighting but chose to remain within the city despite the grueling 24-hour curfew.

"The shelling came all the way here, there is no way we can live here," she told The Associated Press.

Shoe-store owner Nesim Cavusoglu, who also stuck out the curfew, despaired over the destroyed facade of his business, one of many buildings to suffer extensive damage. "This is all that is left," he said gesturing at the rubble and a handful of shoe boxes still stacked on a shelf.

Graffiti in his neighborhood spelled out PKK and the initials of its female and male urban youth wings, YDG-H and YDGK-H. "Kurdistan" was scribbled on several storefronts and the portraits of slain Kurdish female fighters adorned an alleyway wall. Two large booms were heard in the morning, which police said were controlled explosions to clear booby traps.

Armored vehicles roamed the town, of some 132,000 people near the borders of Syria and Iraq. The security forces had on Feb. 11 declared victory over the Kurdish rebels, who had raised barricades, dug trenches and planted explosives to protect the area in which they aspired for self-rule. The army says more than 600 Kurdish rebels were killed in Cizre.

Advocacy groups repeatedly expressed concern over the high number of civilian casualties - at least 92 in Cizre alone, according to Turkish rights groups — amid the curfews.

Amnesty International has said the curfews amount to "collective punishment."

Ozturk Turkdogan, who heads the Ankara-based Human Rights Association, said an additional 171 bodies were retrieved from three basements in Cizre since Feb. 5. "We believe that these people were unarmed and civilians," he told the AP.

Turkdogan accused the authorities of using the time between the end of security operations and the lifting of the curfew to destroy any evidence of wrongdoing. "The basements were razed to the ground," he said.

Police said the curfew could not be lifted immediately after the military operations ended because of the extent of explosives they had to clear.

The government insists the operations were inevitable, arguing that "no country in the world would allow armed terrorists to roam its streets," and says the curfews were necessary to protect residents.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has promised to reconstruct Cizre and other districts ruined by the fighting.

The PKK, considered a terror group by Turkey and its allies, has been waging an insurgency in southeastern Turkey since 1984. The conflict has killed tens of thousands of people since then.

A fragile two-year-old peace process with the rebels broke down in July.