ANKARA Turkish police used water cannon, tear gas and baton charges to break up Kurdish demonstrations across the country on Sunday, a sign of rising tension ahead of the Kurdish New Year next week.
Turkey's pro-Kurdish party and Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) armed militants have both called for large demonstrations for Newroz, the Kurdish New Year that begins on March 21, sensing the government, which has strongly backed Arab uprisings, may be vulnerable to pressure from street protests.
Both the legal Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) and the PKK are demanding a level of autonomy for the mainly Kurdish southeast of the country.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's conservative government has taken steps to increase cultural rights for the country's Kurds - some 20 percent of the population - but says these are individual rights and that it is strongly against any separate political settlement for the Kurds or the southeast as a whole.
The biggest protest took place in Diyarbakir, the main city in the southeast. Several thousand people gathered to march to an area just outside the city to celebrate Newroz.
Hundreds of riot police, backed by armoured cars and helicopters, took over strategic points in the city from the early morning. They tried to prevent large crowds coming together and attempted to block the way to the Newroz meeting. Turkish authorities have banned Newroz celebrations till March 21.
Clashes broke out across the city between stone-throwing youths and police who fired tear gas and water cannon, and arrested dozens of people, witnesses said.
Still, at least 20,000 people gathered in the area outside the city, waving Kurdish flags and holding up portraits of Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed PKK leader.
"Long live Ocalan," and "the PKK is the people, the people are here," the crowd chanted.
Police in Istanbul, Turkey's biggest city with a large Kurdish population, also moved in to break up a Newroz celebration just outside the city's ancient city walls.
Clashes broke out when police prevented two groups of more than 1,000 people each coming together, Turkish media said.
Turkish prosecutors have this year arrested thousands of people across the country accused of sympathies with the PKK, which Turkey, the United States and the European Union recognise as a terrorist organisation.
More than 40,000 militants, soldiers and civilians have been killed in the fighting since the PKK took up arms in 1984.
(Writing by Jon Hemming; Editing by Karolina Tagaris)