Turkish authorities fired three elected mayors and detained more than 400 people on Monday, escalating tensions in the Kurdish-dominated southeast as the government prepares to expand its military presence in Syria against separatist Kurdish militants.
The Interior Ministry removed mayors of Diyarbakir, Mardin and Van for alleged ties to the PKK, a Kurdish group classified as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the U.S. and the European Union for waging a war for autonomy. The three cities have a total population of about 3.7 million people.
The latest crackdown on Kurdish politicians comes as Turkey seeks to create what officials described as a “safe zone” across the border with Syria, signaling Ankara’s impatience with the presence of U.S.-backed Kurdish groups that were instrumental in defeating Islamic State militants. Turkey says those groups are also linked to the PKK.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned before local elections in March that his government would not hesitate to replace mayors from the pro-Kurdish HDP party if they are deemed to be linked to Kurdish militants. The HDP has faced a broad crackdown since it won enough votes to enter parliament in 2015. Since then, the government has jailed hundreds of Kurdish politicians and seized about 100 municipalities in the southeast.
The clampdown plays well with the nationalists even as the government is facing accusations from critics of ignoring election results in which the HDP swept back to power in municipalities across the southeast. HDP supporters have also helped Turkey’s main opposition party to win mayoral races in Istanbul and Ankara, dealing a blow to Erdogan’s AK Party.
“All political parties and society should react to this coup against the will of the people,” Garo Paylan, an HDP lawmaker, said on Twitter. “If you remain silent, then the next in line could be Ankara and Istanbul.”
All three mayors were elected with a majority of votes in the March 31 election. Diyarbakir Mayor Adnan Selcuk Mizrakli got 63% of the provincial vote, while Mardin Mayor Ahmet Turk had 56% and Van Mayor Bedia Ozgokce Ertan received 54% popular support.