ANKARA: Turkish troops launched a search Sunday for a lawmaker kidnapped by Kurdish rebels near the eastern city of Tunceli, authorities and the lawmaker’s party said.
Huseyin Aygun, from the main opposition Republican People’s Party, was abducted Sunday evening at a roadblock between the town of Ovacik and Tunceli, said party spokesman Haluk Koc during a televised news conference.
A journalist and an adviser traveling with him were set free, he added.
“For the first time, a lawmaker has been kidnapped by the terrorist organization,” Koc said. ”It shows where the level of terrorism has reached.”
The rebels of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, are fighting for autonomy in the Kurdish-dominated southeast region and maintain bases in northern Iraq from where they launch hit-and-run attacks on Turkish targets.
The group is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union. Turkey has raised concerns that the rebels could now also exploit a power vacuum in neighboring Syria, and has warned it will ”not tolerate” any rebel threats from Syrian territory.
The Turkish government said last month that the rebels have seized control of five towns along the border in collaboration with Syria’s Democratic Union Party, or PYD, an ethnic Kurdish grouping.
Turkey has launched military drills near the frontier in a show of strength.
NTV television reported Gov Mustafa Taskesen of Tunceli province as saying that Aygun was kidnapped under orders from Kurdish rebel command, which is based deep in northern Iraq.
He said troops were chasing the rebels and a larger operation would be launched early Monday.
The rebels have previously kidnapped soldiers, local politicians, government workers, journalists and tourists, but never a lawmaker.
Most hostages have been released without harm.
NTV reported that Taskesen had highlighted that the kidnapping came ahead of the 28th anniversary of the rebels’ first armed attack on Aug. 15, 1984.
Aygun was elected to the Parliament to represent Tunceli, where he worked as a lawyer for 14 years.
According to his website, his work focuses on human rights abuses, such as the forcible evacuations of Kurdish villages to deny support to the rebels in rural areas, as well as torture cases.
His adviser, Deniz Tunc, told NTV television that Aygun had resisted the rebels and quarreled with them in Kurdish for half an hour before convincing them to free him and the journalist.
The rebels reportedly said “he will be our guest for a while,” Tunc was quoted as saying.
The kidnapping came days after the government claimed troops have killed as many as 115 rebels in the southeastern town of Semdinli, and after Aygun’s party called for an extraordinary meeting in Parliament on Tuesday to discuss the struggle against the rebels.
The rebels have stepped up violence since a botched military airstrike aimed at them in December instead killed 35 smugglers, the highest single-day civilian death toll in the long-standing conflict.
A government campaign to reconcile with Kurds, who make up roughly 20 per cent of Turkey’s nearly 75 million people, by granting them more rights has stalled amid a surge in fighting over the past year.
The Turkish government has taken some conciliatory steps toward the Kurds, allowing Kurdish-language institutes and private Kurdish courses, as well as Kurdish television broadcasts.
But Kurdish activists say far more needs to be done to heal scars dating from a time when their language was banned, and cite police roundups of Kurdish politicians, journalists and others suspected of rebel links as a sign of intolerance for the minority.
The government, however, refuses demands by Kurdish activists and politicians for full education in the Kurdish language, fearing it would divide Turkey along ethnic lines.