Turkey’s government is blocking access to independent investigations into alleged mass abuses against civilians in Turkey’s Kurdish region in the southeast of the country, where security forces are fighting Kurdish militants, Human Rights Watch said on Monday.
Thousands of Kurdish civilians have been caught up in fighting between the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants and security forces that flared in July after a two-year-old ceasefire collapsed.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said in a report that alleged abuses in the conflict included unlawful killings of civilians, mass forced civilian displacement, and widespread unlawful destruction of private property. It said at least 338 civilians had died after being caught up in clashes.
In a release on its website, Human Rights Watch called on the government to promptly grant the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights permission to enter the area and investigate in accordance with its standards.
“The Turkish government’s effective blockade of areas of the southeast fuels concerns of a major cover-up,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“The Turkish government should give the UN and non governmental groups immediate access to the area to document what’s going on there.”
The Turkish government denies targeting civilians in the operations. A presidency official described the HRW report as inaccurate and misleading.
Since July 2015, Turkey initiated a controversial military campaign against the PKK in the country’s southeastern Kurdish region after Ankara ended a two-year ceasefire agreement. Since the beginning of the campaign, Ankara has imposed several round-the-clock curfews, preventing civilians from fleeing regions where the military operations are being conducted.
Observers say the crackdown has taken a heavy toll on the Kurdish civilian population and accuse Turkey of using collective punishment against the minority.
Activists have accused the security forces of causing huge destruction to urban centres and killing Kurdish civilians. But the government says the operations are essential for public safety, blaming the PKK for the damage.
Pro-Kurdish opposition political parties say about 1,000 civilians, mostly Kurds, have perished in the fighting, since the Turkish offensive against the PKK centred in towns and cities in Turkish Kurdistan.
According to the Turkish army, more than 600 militants were killed in security operations in Cizre, a Kurdish town of more than 100,000 people that was sealed off and under curfew for 78 days until March 2. It denies accusations it has killed large numbers of civilians.
Turkey’s parliament last June has granted immunity from prosecution to members of the armed forces conducting counter-terrorism operations as security forces battle Kurdish militants in Turkish Kurdistan.
The PKK took up arms in 1984 against the Turkish state, which still denies the constitutional existence of Kurds, to push for greater autonomy for the Kurdish minority who make up around 22.5 million of the country’s 78-million population.
A large Turkey’s Kurdish community openly sympathise with PKK rebels.