ANKARA, Turkey — At least four Turks who were staging a hunger protest against the country's prison conditions died after setting their quarters on fire Monday rather than surrendering to riot police intent on taking them to hospitals for forced feeding, the government said.
The three-hour police raid filled an Istanbul neighborhood with flames, smoke, tear gas and gunfire. The Turkish Human Rights Assn. put the death toll at six and said it was unclear how they died. At least nine people were wounded, the group said.
The four confirmed fatalities brought to at least 45 the number of dead in a yearlong protest by hundreds of left-wing inmates and their supporters against new high-security prisons.
Monday's raid targeted three houses serving as quarters for supporters of the prisoners. Witnesses said hundreds of club-wielding special police entered the slum neighborhood with armored personnel carriers and earthmoving equipment, flattening makeshift barricades erected by the hunger strikers.
Details of the raid were sketchy. Witnesses quoted by NTV television said police used tear gas and fired guns in the air as they moved on the houses.
Protesters are opposed to the new prisons because the number of inmates in each cell has been reduced to a maximum of three. Protesters are concerned that the smaller number makes inmates more vulnerable to abuse by prison officials.
Officials have refused to transfer hunger-striking prisoners back to larger, dormitory-style wards, which house a many as 100 inmates each. Authorities say the wards had become indoctrination and training centers for outlawed militant groups.
Western diplomats here say the raid will not help Turkey as it seeks to gain membership in the European Union. EU governments have long cited the country's poor human rights record--including the frequent torture and beating of pretrial detainees--as a reason for excluding Turkey.
Human rights defenders here have voiced concern that the government is seeking to exploit international outrage over the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States to clamp down harder on political opponents at home.
"They feel they have a stronger hand and will face less criticism over such abuses," said Husnu Ondul, chairman of the Turkish Human Rights Assn. Turkey has won praise from the United States for its commitment to send 90 elite troops to take part in the war against Afghanistan's Taliban rulers.
Most of the hunger strikers are members or sympathizers of the outlawed left-wing Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front. In September the group claimed responsibility for a suicide bomb attack that killed three people in central Istanbul. There is little public sympathy for the group as Turkey grapples with a 10-month-old economic crisis.
Security forces raided 21 prisons across Turkey in December to try to end the protest and to hospitalize those hunger strikers closest to death. At least 30 inmates died in those raids. Turkish authorities said most of the prisoners died after pouring kerosene over themselves and lighting it.
But official forensic reports leaked to the Turkish media said many had died from bullet wounds or inhaling toxic fumes.