By SARAH DiLORENZO and SUZAN FRASER
PARIS — Three Kurdish activists, including reportedly one of the founding members of a militant separatist group, were shot dead in what authorities called an “execution” in central Paris. The slayings prompted speculation that the long-running conflict between insurgents from the minority group and Turkey was playing out on French shores.
The slayings came as Turkey was holding peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers Party, which seeks self-rule for Kurds in the country’s southeast, to try to persuade it to disarm. The conflict between the group, known as the PKK, and the Turkish government has claimed tens of thousands of lives since 1984.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said at a news conference in Senegal on Thursday that his country was determined to press ahead with the talks despite the events in Paris, which he suggested could be the result of internal strife or an act to sabotage the talks. The PKK does have a history of internal killings. But many Kurdish activists and militants were also victims of extra-judicial killings blamed on Turkish government forces in the 1990s.
Initial reports were contradictory but pointed to a grisly crime scene. One Kurdish organization said the door of the building where the women were found just after midnight was smeared with blood, that two of the women were shot in the neck and one in the stomach and that the killer used a silencer. French radio reported that all three were shot in the head.
The killings set off a round of accusations, with each side accusing the other of being behind the deaths. Police tried to contain hundreds of Kurds who flocked to the building in eastern Paris where the bodies were found Thursday, many blaming Turkey and calling the deaths a “political assassination.”
It was not clear if any of the women were currently members of the PKK, which Turkey, the U.S. and the European Union consider a terrorist organization. President Francois Hollande said he and several politicians knew one of the women professionally. He did not say which one.
Turkey’s Anadolu news agency identified one of the victims as Sakine Cansiz, a founding member of the PKK in her 50s, but French authorities have not confirmed that.
The Paris prosecutors’ office did confirm that the other two victims were Leyla Soylemez and Fidan Dogan, both in their 20s. A news agency linked to the PKK, Firat news, said Dogan was the Paris representative of the Kurdistan National Congress. It said she became a Kurdish rights activist in 1999.
The slayings are being investigated by France’s anti-terrorism police.
Emotions mounted Thursday as Kurds flocked to the center where the bodies were found. Police erected barricades to try to contain the marching crowd of several hundred. The crowd waved Kurdish flags, chanted angrily against the Turkish government and claimed the deaths were a “political assassination.”
Just hours after the bodies were found, Kurdish groups at the scene handed out strips of paper with pictures of three women, identified as Cansiz, Soylemez and Dogan.
French Interior Minister Manuel Valls, who visited the Kurdistan Information Center in Paris where the bodies were found, said the deaths were “without doubt an execution.” He called it a “totally intolerable act.”
Paris has long been a home to exiled opposition movements - often from countries that used to be part of France’s colonial empire - and has been a killing ground for some of them. But it’s been years since such an assassination has unfolded in France.
During Lebanon’s civil war, the Lebanese Armed Revolutionary Factions claimed responsibility for the killings of an American military attache and an Israeli diplomat in Paris. Georges Ibrahim Abdallah, whom police have described as the group’s leader, was convicted of complicity in the 1982 killings.
In 1991, Shahpour Bakhtiar, the prime minister to Iran’s last Shah, was stabbed and strangled in his home in a western suburb of Paris. His aide was also killed. A decade earlier, Bakhtiar had survived another assassination attempt, also outside Paris.
Kurdish leaders who gathered Thursday accused France of working against the Kurdish cause.
“I, too, want France to ask the question: ‘Why Paris?’” asked Songul Karabulut, who heads the foreign relations committee of the Kurdistan National Congress. “Without accusing France, in the last few years, the country that has most repressed the rights of Kurds has been France.”
She said that Cansiz had been granted refugee status by France. Devris Cimen, head of the Frankfurt-based Kurdish Center for Public Information, also said Cansiz had been granted asylum. The Interior Ministry did not immediately reply to requests for comment.
Kurds are scattered over four countries - Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq - where they enjoy varying levels of freedom. In Turkey, they make up around 20 percent of the population and were long denied many rights, including even speaking the Kurdish language in the 1980s.
Many hundreds of thousands of Kurds have settled in Europe, especially in Germany. More than 150,000 Kurds and people of Kurdish descent live in France, according to an academic study.
In the PKK’s nearly three-decade insurgency, fighters frequently launch hit-and-run attacks from bases in northern Iraq, a largely autonomous Kurdish region. Turkey is now also worried about possible infiltration by Kurdish rebels from Syria, where Kurdish groups have reportedly grabbed power in some areas along the Syrian-Turkish border.
Details about the crime dripped out from Kurdish organizations Thursday, but some reports were conflicting.
According to the Federation of Kurdish Associations of France, the three women were alone at the center Wednesday and were unreachable by telephone. In a statement, the group said friends went there after midnight and saw traces of blood on the door, so they broke it down and discovered the bodies. It said two of the women were shot in the neck and one in the stomach.
RTL radio reported that all three were shot in the head.
The police would not immediately confirm those reports, except to say the bodies were found about 1:30 a.m. However, a French judicial official said there was no sign of a break-in, even by friends. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to talk to the media.
Huseyin Celik, the deputy chairman of Turkey’s ruling party, said the attack appeared to be the result of “an internal feud” within the PKK, but did not provide any evidence to back that up. Celik also suggested the slayings were an attempt to derail the peace talks.
Gultan Kisanak, a leader of a Kurdish political party, called Cansiz “an idol of the Kurdish people and Kurdish women” and rejected the possibility of an internal PKK feud.
“How dare they present the murder of a revolutionary as internal strife without any evidence?” she said in response to Celik’s comment.
Erdogan said his country’s intelligence agency is meeting with the PKK’s jailed leader, Abdullah Ocalan, on a prison island off Istanbul where he has been serving a life sentence since 1999. Two Kurdish legislators were allowed to travel to the island last week to participate in the talks.
Turkish government officials said a PKK attack on a military post this week was an attempt to derail the talks.