People stand among the rubble of damaged buildings following heavy fighting between Turkish troops and Kurdish fighters in the southeastern town of Cizre (AFP Photo/Ilyas Akengin)
Cizre (Turkey) – Residents of Cizre in southeastern Turkey began returning home Wednesday after authorities partially lifted a curfew in place since December for a controversial operation against Kurdish rebels which left many homes destroyed.
Horrified residents found scenes of devastation and entire buildings in ruins following the clashes between the army and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) while others had their exterior walls blown out, AFP correspondents said.
The regional governor’s office announced Tuesday that the curfew in the mainly-Kurdish town — in place since mid December — would be lifted each day between 5 am and 7:30pm (0300-1730 GMT).
Thousands of residents carrying their belongings formed long queues at the entrance of the town where checkpoints had been put up, an AFP correspondent said.
“We fled on December 14 along with our kids, only taking our clothes we wore. Nothing else,” said Hadi Akyurek, a local shopkeeper.
“Our house was destroyed. Our belongings remained under the rubble. We are left with nothing.”
The damage was even visible from the entrance of Cizre, with houses burned and shops destroyed.
People could be seen trying to recover their belongings from the rubble and checking for any corpses. In normal times, Cizre is home to some 100,000 people.
Five corpses were pulled from the debris on Wednesday alone, two from basements and three from a garden.
– ‘No home, no shelter’ –
Officials from the pro-Kurdish Democratic Peoples’ Party (HDP) have claimed at least 167 people were killed in three basements under buildings which were razed, with bereaved relatives weeping at the scene.
At the site where three of the bodies were found on Wednesday, bloodstained blankets lay on the ground, with the house used as a field hospital by PKK militants during the clashes.
“We were scared and fled our home after gunfire and bombings. Our kids could not stand the sound,” house owner Salih Tanriverdi told AFP.
“I don’t know what to say. We see now our house collapsed. I don’t know what we’ll do. We are left with neither a home nor a shelter,” he said.
The sound of explosions could still be heard in the town as bomb disposal experts detonated left-over ordnance, with the municipality warning people to keep their distance.
Police were searching for explosives and dead bodies in several neighbourhoods of the town, with the corpses carried into funeral cars.
The PKK, designated as a terrorist organisation by Turkey and its Western allies, has killed dozens of members of the Turkish security forces in bomb and gun attacks since a fragile truce collapsed in July.
The Turkish army says 666 PKK “terrorists” were killed in the operation but Kurdish activists ridicule this figure, saying civilians were among the dead.
– Protesters, police clash –
Ankara has repeatedly imposed curfews for military operations in southeastern urban centres, in a measure the government says is necessary to root out PKK militants who were taking de-facto control in some areas.
The Cizre curfew was one of the longest but a lockdown has also been in place since December 2 in the central Sur district which is home Turkey’s biggest Kurdish majority city, Diyarbakir.
According to the HDP, 25 citizens have been killed during the Sur curfew while several centuries-old historic and religious buildings have been destroyed.
Amid rising tensions in Diyarbakir, police again used water cannon and tear gas to stop protesters marching towards the Sur district to demand an end to the curfew, an AFP correspondent said.
Protesters set fire to boxes and containers in the middle of the street with clashes still continuing in some areas.
Prosecutors have launched an investigation against HDP co-leader Selahattin Demirtas for urging the protesters to take to the streets, official media said.