Turkey replaced pro-Kurdish party mayors with state officials in three southeastern cities and detained more than 400 people for suspected militant links on Monday, the Interior Ministry said, in a move likely to fuel tensions in Turkey’s southeast.
Ahead of nationwide local elections in March, President Tayyip Erdogan had warned of such a move against elected officials if they were found to have connections to the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
The mayors in Diyarbakir, Mardin and Van, major cities in the mainly Kurdish southeast, were accused of various crimes including membership of a terrorist organisation and spreading terrorist group propaganda, the ministry statement said.
“For the health of the investigations, they have been temporarily removed from their posts as a precaution,” it said, referring to Diyarbakir Mayor Selcuk Mizrakli, Mardin Mayor Ahmet Turk and Van Mayor Bedia Ozgokce Ertan.
CNN Turk showed police sealing off the municipality headquarters in Diyarbakir with metal barriers, with water cannon vehicles and riot police deployed outside.
The Interior Ministry said on Twitter that police detained 418 people in 29 provinces in an investigation targeting suspects with links to the PKK militant group.
The removal of the mayors echoed the dismissal of dozens of mayors in 2016 over similar accusations, part of a purge that began after a failed coup. Nearly 100 mayors and thousands of party members were jailed in a crackdown that drew expressions of concern from the United States and European Union.
Ahead of the March election Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said 178 current election candidates were being investigated over alleged PKK links.
Erdogan at the time warned that pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) mayors could again be dismissed if they, like their predecessors, are deemed to have ties to militants.
Erdogan frequently accuses the HDP of links to the PKK, which is designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the European Union and United States. The HDP denies such links.
The PKK launched an insurgency in 1984. More than 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict.