CIZRE, Turkey (AP) — The stench of death and the smell of gunpowder rose from mounds of rubble Wednesday as residents of the Turkish town of Cizre returned to find many of their homes obliterated amid Turkey's efforts to crush Kurdish militants. At least one body was still lying inside a ruined house.
Cizre is one of a handful of mainly southeastern Kurdish districts where Turkey's security forces, backed by tanks, have conducted extensive operations against militants linked to the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK. The militants want autonomy for Kurds in Turkey's southeast, and had raised barricades, dug trenches and planted explosives to protect areas where they had aspired for self-rule.
On Wednesday, the Turkish military eased the 24-hour curfew it imposed on Dec. 14, although it still holds between 7:30 p.m. and 5 a.m. The reprieve comes three weeks after authorities on Feb. 11 declared the successful conclusion of military operations to stamp out the rebels.
The town of 132,000 near the banks of the Tigris river and the borders of Syria and Iraq has been the worst hit in terms of the scale of the fighting and the casualty toll. The level of damage seen in some neighborhoods Wednesday evoked the early days of the war in neighboring Syria, with buildings gutted by shelling or partially collapsed.
The army says more than 600 Kurdish rebels were killed in Cizre. Human rights groups say 92 civilians were killed in the town during the military operation and another 171 bodies have been found since hostilities halted Feb. 11.
The first wave of residents reached the town at dawn Wednesday, their vehicles loaded with personal belongings and children. Police carefully inspected their documents as well as the contents of their cars and bags.
What the returnees found shocked them.
Shell casings littered the battle-scared streets of the Sur neighborhood, where residents made a grisly discovery — the corpse of an unidentifiable male. The stench of death also rose from a collapsed building in the same area. Residents said security forces had demolished the building's basement, which was being used a shelter.
"Those who did this are not human," said Cizre resident Serif Ozem. "What took place here is a second Kobani in a country that is supposed to be a democracy."
Kobani is a predominantly Kurdish town in northern Syria that suffered a brutal siege at the hands of the Islamic State group.
Several shops and homes in the Sur neighborhood had their walls blasted open. Windows were shattered and doors unhinged, the smell of gunpowder still clinging to the breeze.
Turkish military-imposed curfews remain in the historic district of the main Kurdish city of Diyarbakir — which is also called Sur — and in Idil, a district in Sirnak province, where Turkish forces are continuing operations against Kurdish militants. Amnesty International says the curfews amount to "collective punishment."
In Diyarbakir, an improvised explosive device went off prematurely Tuesday, killing a suspected bomber and wounding four children, the governor's office said.
Police on Wednesday used tear gas and water cannons to disperse protesters trying to get to Diyarbakir's Sur neighborhood to protest the government military operation there. Some youths were seen hurling rocks at police. The protests spread to other parts of the city but there were no immediate reports on possible injuries or arrests.
During the months-long curfew in Cizre, some people stayed put in the worst-hit neighborhoods like Sur, Cudi and Nur, while others fled.
Ayse Magi, a mother of five who sought safety elsewhere in the town, inspected the damage to her modest home with tears in her eyes Wednesday. Two mortars had punctured the ceiling of her bathroom and the hallway.
"There is no way we can live here," she told The Associated Press.
Shoe-store owner Nesim Cavusoglu despaired over the destroyed facade of his business. "This is all that is left," he said gesturing at the rubble and a handful of shoe boxes.
Graffiti in his neighborhood spelled out PKK and the initials of its female and male urban youth wings, YDG-H and YDGK-H. "Kurdistan" was scribbled on several storefronts and portraits of slain Kurdish female fighters adorned an alley wall.
Gov. Ali Ihsan Su of Sirnak province warned returning Cizre residents to be careful and watch for possible undetected explosive devices in their homes. Three large booms were heard, which police said were controlled explosions to clear booby traps.
Blaming the militants for the destruction of the town, the governor said 708 barricades were dismantled, 264 trenches were filled and 1,409 improvised explosive devices were disposed of and "large numbers" of automatic weapons, other firearms and hand grenades were seized
"They destroyed houses by placing explosives from the kitchens to the bedrooms. They attacked callously and mercilessly, without distinguishing between military, police, women, men, old or young," Su told reporters.
The government says more than 300 security force members have died since July fighting Kurdish rebels.
Advocacy groups, meanwhile, expressed concern again over the high number of civilian casualties amid the government operation. Ozturk Turkdogan, who heads the Ankara-based Human Rights Association, said an additional 171 bodies had been retrieved from three basements in Cizre since Turkey declared the battle over.
"We believe that these people were unarmed and civilians," he told the AP.
Turkdogan also accused Turkish authorities of using the time between the end of security operations and the lifting of the curfew to destroy any evidence of wrongdoing.
"The basements were razed to the ground," he said.
Police said the curfew could not be lifted immediately because troops had to clear leftover explosives first.
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has promised to reconstruct Cizre and other places ruined by the fighting.
The PKK, considered a terror group by Turkey and its allies, has been waging an insurgency in southeastern Turkey since 1984. The conflict has killed tens of thousands of people since then. A fragile two-year-old peace process with the rebels broke down in July.
Nurettin Guler, a 55-year old who stayed in Cizre amid the worst fighting, was pessimistic about the next phase.
"They say the operations have ended but we just don't know," he told the AP. "If peace isn't achieved ... it's not over."
Associated Press writer Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey and Mehmet Guzel in Cizre contributed to this report.
This version has been corrected to reflect that the explosion in Diyarbakir occurred on Tuesday, not Monday.