At least 17 people were killed Tuesday when Turkish security forces led a dramatic crackdown on 20 jails across the country to end a two-month hunger strike against prison reform, a government minister said.
"Fifteen inmates lost their lives, most of them after setting themselves ablaze" as hundreds of paramilitary troops stormed jails across the country at dawn, Justice Minister Hikmet Sami Turk told reporters here.
"Two soldiers were killed and three others injured when inmates used weapons against security forces in several prisons," he added.
Turk said 57 prisoners were wounded in the operations, most after they set themselves on fire.
Most of the deaths occurred in Istanbul's Bayrampasa prison, from where authorities say the hunger strikes and inmates' resistance were directed, according to Anatolia news agency.
Turk said late Tuesday the operation was continuing in two prisons and expressed hope that "the situation there will be taken under control on Wednesday at the latest."
Press reports said security forces failed to end the riots in Istanbul's Umraniye jail and a prison in Canakkale in the west, where the two soldiers were killed in separate incidents.
Turk said 575 hunger strikers were "rescued" and put in hospital during the operations, launched to "save the lives of inmates" who were forced to join the strikes after lengthy mediation efforts failed.
More than 200 inmates, mainly from the extreme left, have been on a "death fast" for 61 days to protest against new jails where cells for three people at most will replace present dormitories for up to 60 inmates.
Some 1,000 others have been on a limited hunger strike, taking only small amounts of sugar and water, in support of starving fellow prisoners.
Inmates and critics say the new jails will isolate prisoners and may facilitate maltreatment and torture, while Turkish officials say the reform does not amount to solitary confinement.
Ankara maintains that the overcrowded dormitories are the main reason behind the lax security in Turkish jails, which has led to frequent riots and subsequent, often deadly, crackdowns.
Officials say the hunger strikes were masterminded and directed by outlawed groups and many strikers were forced to starve.
"Turkey had encountered a significant terrorist force, which took over the control in prisons. Now this force will lose strength," Turk said.
"From now on state control and respect for human rights in prisons will reach an utmost level," he added.
In a bid to avert deaths among hunger-strikers, Ankara announced earlier this month that the opening of the new jails, known as F-type, had been postponed until a consensus was reached on their design.
But authorities broke their promise following Tuesday's raids and began transfering inmates to prisons built under the reform.
"Transfers (to F-type jails) are continuing. This has become compulsory since our prisons are full well above their capacity," Turk said.
Many of the inmates hospitalized after the raids were refusing medical treatment.
But Health Minister Osman Durmus ordered doctors to treat them, Anatolia reported.
"Those who are diagnosed with organ deficiency will be immediately given serum," he said in a decree to related hospitals.
In Ankara and Istanbul, truncheon-wielding police broke demonstrations condemning the raids and detained more than 200 protestors, according to the Human Rights Association.
A group of protestors torched a police vehicle in downtown Ankara following violent clashes with riot officers, who fired shots in the air.
At Istanbul's Taksim square, police equipped with armored vehicles, sprayed pressurized water on stone-hurling protestors.
Demonstrations were also held in several European cities, among them Paris, Frankfurt, Hamburg and Bern -- ANKARA (AFP)
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