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3 Kurdish women political activists shot dead in Paris

Thursday, January 10, 2013 - 10:02am

(CNN) -- Three Kurdish women political activists were found dead with gunshots to the head early Thursday, police in Paris said, in an unexplained act of violence that has shocked the Kurdish community.

French Interior Minister Manuel Valls told reporters in Paris the three women had been "without doubt executed" and described the killings as "totally unacceptable."

The bodies were found about 2 a.m. in the Information Center for Kurdistan in Paris, in a central district of the capital, a police representative said.

Police have not yet confirmed the names or ages of the three women.

However, the main pro-Kurdish political party in Turkey, the Peace and Democracy Party, or BDP, identified the three victims as Sakine Cansiz, Leyla Sonmez and Fidan Dogan, and said all three were politically active.

Cansiz is widely reported to be a co-founder of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which is viewed as a terror organization by the United States, European Union and others.

It's not yet clear what the motive for the killings might be.

But Hugh Pope, senior Turkey analyst for the International Crisis Group, told CNN he saw the killings in the context of negotiations that have been under way between the Turkish government and a variety of Kurdish leaders, including jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, since November.

Pope suggested the killings would "raise huge questions on the Kurdish side about what's going on" in relation to the Turkish negotiations.

"No one should use this as an excuse to end these talks. Because this is a unique opportunity, it is a year without any political elections," he said. "Whoever did it, it's very important that the negotiators take steps to reassure each other."

The BDP, which has 35 elected members in the Turkish parliament, condemned what it called the "savage murder" of three Kurdish women politicians.

"We expect the French government to enlighten this massacre beyond a shadow of doubt. We want it known that these murders committed overtly in the busiest part of Paris cannot be covered up," it said in a written statement.

The BDP praised the three for their work for Kurds and for women's rights, adding: "We call on our people to rise in protest wherever they are to condemn this massacre."

Valls said that Dogan was the head of the Information Center for Kurdistan and that she was known to many in the community through her work.

Dogan was also the Paris representative of the Kurdistan National Congress, or KNK, a political group based in Brussels, Belgium.

Akif Rizgar Wan, the British representative of the KNK, told CNN he had known Dogan for more than a decade and had last seen her in December.

He described her killing as "terrorism in the middle of Europe" and an attack on efforts to find a peaceful resolution to the Kurdish question. "It's a very big loss for us," he said. "I cannot describe my sadness. I've not seen anyone else in my life so warm and helpful to anyone."

Pope warned against quick pronouncements on the assassin's identity or affiliation, saying the PKK "has a long history of killing its own people, too. So there's no way anybody can jump to conclusions."

Huseyin Celik, a spokesman for Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, said information was still coming in, but "when you look how it was carried out, it seems like an internal settling of scores within the PKK."

Firat News Agency, a pro-PKK news outlet, said Cansiz became a part of the Kurdish revolutionary movement in 1976 and was one of the founding members of the PKK. She was sent to prison, and following the country's 1980 military coup was subjected to torture, it said.

She resumed her revolutionary activities in Kurdish areas after her release in 1991, Firat said, before moving to Europe, where she "was a leader in Kurdish women's recruitment, and a great contributor to the institutionalization and organization of Kurds in exile."

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that French authorities were "determined to shed light on these murders" and that a judicial inquiry had been opened.

So far, authorities have given no indication as to who might have been responsible.

Leon Edart, of the Federation of Kurdish Associations in France, told CNN affiliate BFM-TV that the women had been alone in the information center Wednesday afternoon. He said there were no cameras in the building.

Many members of Paris' Kurdish community live near the information center, near the Gare du Nord, the city's main northern train station, in Paris' 10th district.

Protesters rallied outside the building Thursday morning, police said.

A statement on the French website Jeunesse Kurde (Kurdish Youth) urges Kurds and friends of the Kurdish people to gather in Paris.

The ethnic Kurdish population extends across parts of Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq.

The Turkish government has recently embarked on a new, highly publicized round of peace negotiations with Kurdish leaders.

The PKK is a pan-Kurdish nationalist movement better known internationally for the guerrilla war it has fought for nearly three decades against the government of Turkey. The violence, the country's oldest and deadliest ethnic conflict, has claimed more than 40,000 lives.

For decades, the Turkish state discriminated against the Kurds, Turkey's largest ethnic minority, which now makes up roughly 20% of the population. The Kurdish language was banned, and Kurds were long referred to as "mountain Turks."

-- CNN's Ivan Watson and Gul Tuysuz reported from Istanbul, and Alexander Felton and Laura Smith-Spark from London.

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