MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Three Kurdish women were killed this morning in downtown Paris, in what the French Interior Minister described as an execution. One of the women was a founder of the PKK, or Kurdish Workers Party. The group has been fighting for decades for an autonomous Kurdistan. The killings sent a shockwave through the large Kurdish Diaspora in Europe, and cast a shadow over peace talks between the PKK and the Turkish government.
From Paris, Eleanor Beardsley reports.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS)
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Word of the deaths spread quickly this morning, as hundreds of Kurds turned out at the information center where the women were killed. Their angry chants grew louder as the three bodies were wheeled out on stretchers. The French media says each woman was killed with a bullet to the head and from a gun with a silencer.
MANUEL VALLS: (Foreign language spoken)
BEARDSLEY: Quick to the scene, French Interior Minister Manuel Valls said there was no doubt it was an execution. He said French anti-terror units would help with the investigation. The bodies were discovered on the first floor of the building in Paris's 10th Arrondissement near the Gare du Nord, just before 2 A.M., after one woman's partner called the police when he could not get in touch with her.
One of the women killed was Sakine Cansiz, a co-founder of the PKK. Female militants have played a significant role in the PKK's insurgency, partly reflecting a principle of equality within the group's Marxist ideology. Cansiz was admired by Kurds, says demonstrator Eyup Doru.
EYUP DORU: (Through Translator) She's a historical and brave figure for us. She was imprisoned by the Turkish military regime in the '80s and tortured. She was a political refugee here in France.
BEARDSLEY: The 30-year-conflict between the PKK and the Turkish army has killed more than 40,000 people, mostly Kurdish militants and Turkish soldiers. The organization is banned in Turkey and considered a terrorist group by the United States and European Union.
The killings came just as the Turkish government took steps toward peace talks with the PKK. For the first time, the Turkish government is negotiating directly with the charismatic PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, who has been imprisoned since 1999 on an island off the coast of Istanbul. Ocalan is widely reviled by Turks, who hold him responsible for the conflict.
But the Turkish government denied any role in the Paris killings.
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BEARDSLEY: Kurdish demonstrators here in Paris accused the Turkish secret service. But Kendal Nezan, a Kurdish scholar in Paris, says both have reasons to sabotage the peace talks.
KENDAL NEZAN: Some hard-liners in both camps are not very happy with this peace initiative. Among the Turkish military, many people don't agree that a government should discuss with an organization labeled so far a terrorist.
BEARDSLEY: And Nezan says some in the PKK don't think the Kurdish community has obtained sufficient cultural rights or autonomy to go to the negotiating table.
The Kurdish question has taken on particular urgency with the rise of Kurdish groups in Iraq, and with the civil war in Syria and its significant Kurd population. Analysts say before today's killings, the Turkish government and the PKK had agreed to a framework for a peace plan, something unthinkable only a few years ago.
Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.