Turkey's prime minister accused the country's leading pro-Kurdish party on Thursday of serving as a "spokesman" for an outlawed Kurdish rebel group that is fighting for autonomy.
The accusation raised concerns that it could lead to more rebel violence because it came soon after the insurgents ended a unilateral cease-fire.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticized the Peace and Democracy Party, following demands from the party to move imprisoned Kurdish rebel chief Abdullah Ocalan from a prison island to house arrest and end the prosecution of dozens of Kurdish mayors on charges of separatism. The government has refused.
"We see a political party leaving politics and democratic ground, being a spokesman for the terrorist organization," Erdogan said. He said the rebel group and its affiliates were trying to provoke residents of the country's Kurdish-dominated southeast ahead of the June election in hope of winning more votes.
Bengi Yildiz, a Kurdish lawmaker from the Peace and Democracy Party, reacted angrily, saying Erdogan's comments were "unacceptable." Yildiz accused Erdogan of using his political clout to have thousands of Kurds arrested or prosecuted for alleged links to the rebels and said the government was ignoring the demands of tens of thousands of people.
Ocalan's Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, ended a unilateral cease-fire Monday, saying the government had not responded to its demands.
The rebels said they would defend themselves "more effectively" and refrain from attacks, but the Kurdish party warned that tensions are running high in the Kurdish-dominated southeast. The fighting usually picks up in spring when snow melts on rugged mountains and allows rebels to sneak into Turkey from their bases in northern Iraq more easily.
"The region is like a powder keg," the MansetHaber website quoted Selahattin Demirtas, co-chairman of the Peace and Democracy Party, as saying Wednesday. "It is about to explode."
The PKK rebels _ who are considered a terrorist group by Turkey, the U.S. and the European Union _ took up arms in 1984 to seek an independent Kurdish state. It has since changed demands and says it is fighting for an autonomy within Turkey.
Ocalan is serving a life sentence on the prison island of Imrali. He was captured in Kenya in 1999, and a Turkish court sentenced him to death, which was later commuted to life in prison.
While Turks consider Ocalan responsible for nearly 40,000 deaths since the conflict began, he is still revered by Kurdish supporters, who often brave clashes with police for carrying his posters or shouting his name, which is illegal in Turkey.
"There is need to move Mr. Ocalan into a house like (Nelson) Mandela and facilitate dialogue with him for a solution," Yildiz told HaberTurk.
The government has taken several steps to improve the rights of Kurds, including allowing a Kurdish-language television broadcast, but Kurdish politicians insist on broader rights such as education in Kurdish. Turkey opposes this out of fear that it could divide the country along ethnic lines. Kurds make up nearly 20 percent of the country's 74 million people.