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Published: Saturday February 15, 2014 MYT 10:35:01 PM
Updated: Saturday February 15, 2014 MYT 10:36:05 PM

Kurds clash with Turkish police at protests for rebel leader's release

DIYARBAKIR (Reuters) - Thousands of Kurds demonstrated in towns across south east Turkey on Saturday, some clashing violently with riot police as they called for the release of Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan on the 15th anniversary of his capture.

Ocalan, leader of the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), is viewed by nationalist Turks as responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people in the group's 30-year war with the Turkish army.

But for many of Turkey's estimated 15 million Kurds, the 64-year-old represents their bitter struggle for greater cultural and political rights.

Demonstrators and police fought in side streets in Diyarbakir, the main city in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast.

Shops kept their shutters lowered in a sign of protest and thousands took to the streets holding up recent photographs of their jailed leader.

"The PKK is the people and the people are here," they chanted.

In Cizre, an impoverished town on the banks of the Tigris near the Iraqi border, protesters threw petrol bombs at armoured vehicles and police, who fired tear gas.

There were also protests in Batman and Sirnak.

The Turkish government launched talks with Ocalan in late 2012. The PKK, which is designated as a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union, subsequently declared a ceasefire and began withdrawing from Turkey to camps in northern Iraq where they are based.

But the PKK said it had halted its withdrawal in September due to frustration with the government's pace in introducing democratic reforms meant to address Kurdish grievances.

Turkey's effort to make peace with the PKK has been given a sense of urgency by Syria's almost three-year civil war in which Kurds have made major territorial gains, paving the way for their long-declared plans for independent governance in parts of Syria just over Turkey's southern border.

(Additional reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley; Writing by Dasha Afanasieva; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

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