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Turkey Shows Off Rebel Wards

December 23, 2000

ISTANBUL, Turkey (AP) _ Burned books, smashed chairs and charred mattresses litter the halls of the prison _ all remnants of a battle between police and Marxist inmates armed with pistols, homemade flame throwers and bows and arrows tipped with syringe needles.

After four days of fighting, the Turkish government’s nationwide raid on 20 out-of-control prisons came to an end Friday with the surrender of 430 inmates in the last penitentiary holding out. And as soon as the violence had ended, Turkey began trying to explain why the raids were necessary in the first place.

Turkey brought journalists to Istanbul’s Bayrampasa prison to illustrate its argument that the prison wards _ large areas that held more than a dozen prisoners each _ were being run by the inmates and had effectively degenerated into militant training camps.

Police showed reporters captured weapons, including a Kalashnikov assault rifle and 57 spent bullets, four pistols, 101 knives and dozens of arrows topped with the needles from syringes. The inmates also had makeshift gas masks made of plastic soft drink bottles, as well as a homemade satellite dish.

Authorities said 18 of the prison’s wards were controlled by the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Army-Front, a small, militant Marxist group that has claimed responsibility for the assassinations of generals, policemen and government officials.

About 15 prisoners lived in each ward. Inmates from radical groups often refuse to let police or wardens enter the wards. They bribe or threatened guards to allow them to smuggle in material.

``I would like the Turkish nation to openly see how the terrorist organizations were dragging our young into a quagmire,″ Interior Minister Hikmet Sami Turk said.

The prison unrest was set in motion months ago when Turkey decided to dismantle the system of large prison wards and begin transferring prisoners to Western-style small cells. Militants said they feared that authorities would abuse them if they were separated from each other, and hundreds had begun a hunger strike that they vowed to continue until they died or the government backed down from its plan.

The hunger strikes forced the government to act, officials say. And on Tuesday it did, with hundreds of troops storming 20 prisons across the country.

Twenty-four inmates and two soldiers died in the sieges. Turkish officials say many of the inmates burned themselves alive. Private NTV television said three more prisoners were killed Friday, but that report could not be confirmed.

At Bayrampasa prison, soldiers burst in on Tuesday and fought their way into the wards _ the first time authorities had entered some of the areas in almost a decade. Twelve prisoners were killed in clashes or committed suicide by burning themselves alive.

Days later, bullet holes could be seen in the doors and walls of the wards. Black soot covered most of the living quarters of the two-floor wards, which were littered with charred mattresses.

The downstairs area was covered with broken desks and chairs. A smashed aquarium lay scattered in the corner of one ward.

In the garden outside one of the wards sat a large cage filled with some 30 black-and-white pigeons that the inmates were raising. The cage was partly smashed open, but the pigeons remained inside. Raising pigeons is a popular hobby in Turkey.

Most of the militants were pulled from the wards Tuesday and sent to prisons with small cells. Prisoners who had been on a hunger strike for almost two months were rushed to hospitals, where many are refusing medical treatment. Officials have said they will be treated by force if necessary.

In addition to the move to small cells, the Turkish government has begun freeing thousands of inmates to reduce overcrowding and make it easier to take control of the prisons. The government freed hundreds of prisoners Friday as the widespread amnesty began.

The amnesty will free half of the country’s 72,000 prisoners but will not apply to prisoners who opposed the state. That includes Islamic, Kurdish or leftist radicals such as those at Bayrampasa.

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