Turkish security forces seized control over one of two prisons where hundreds of leftist inmates have been holed up in a violent three-day-old standoff that has left more than 20 dead and further dented Turkey's human rights image.
But the interior ministry said in a statement that although paramilitaries had gained control in large parts of Umraniye prison, on Istanbul's Asian side, they had thus far failed to end the three-day stand-off there.
"The prisoners have shut themselves up in a conference hall in Umraniye prison and are continuing to resist security forces," the statement said.
Despite Turkey's stated aim to avoid bloodshed, the toll of the raid launched in 20 jails on Tuesday rose to at least 22 dead when the bodies of three prisoners were found Thursday in Canakkale prison in western Turkey.
"Three prisoners died and 16 prisoners were injured" in the prison, the ministry statement said.
The heavy casualty toll has further tarnished Turkey's bleak human rights record at a time when Ankara is seeking to join the European Union, which has made progress on the human rights front a condition for membership.
Canakkale jail, the only institution along with Umraniye where the inmates were still holding off security forces, finally fell Thursday some five hours after troops launched a fresh assault against 158 inmates holed up inside.
The interior ministry did not say how the three inmates in Canakkale prison lost their lives, but Turkish Justice Minister Hikmet Sami Turk told reporters in Ankara that one female prisoner died after being set ablaze by fellow inmates.
"This shows the fanatical lengths to which the terrorist organization will go to prove its strength," Turk said.
The Turkish Human Rights Foundation, meanwhile, contested the government's official toll, claiming in a statement that more than 30 prisoners had died in the operation, which officials say was aimed to "rescue" prisoners on the hunger strike.
Security forces launched dawn raids on 20 jails across Turkey on Tuesday to end a hunger strike followed by nearly 300 inmates, who were protesting government plans to introduce new jails with smaller cells.
The inmates, fearing mistreatment by prison guards, refuse to be confined to cells for two or three prisoners in the new jails, preferring the current system, where they are housed together in up to 60 per dormitory.
Turkey has come under criticism both at home and abroad for the latest raid following previous heavy-handed operations in its unruly and overcrowded prisons which have ended in bloodshed.
The European Commission expressed concern at the crackdown, even as EU ministers approved a 135-million-euro (122-million-dollar) grant to Ankara for projects that include "the defence and promotion of human rights."
Turkish authorities have taken hundreds of inmates to hospital after the operation, but according to non-governmental organizations closely following the hunger strikes, none of the inmates have accepted to be forcibly fed.
Turkish rights groups have also blasted Ankara's opening of the controversial new jails, despite the government's assurance in early December that they would not be used until a consensus was reached on the design.
But more than 500 prisoners were transferred to three of the new jails, known as F-types, following the launch of the raids, Turk said Thursday.
"We will continue to transfer prisoners to the F-type jails until we completely scrap the dormitory prison," the minister said.
Turkey maintains that the packed dormitories have led to lax security, enabling inmates to smuggle in weapons and turn compounds into virtual fortresses.
Ankara took another firm step towards enacting its controversial prison reform when parliament passed an amnesty law vetoed by President Ahmet Necdet Sezer last week for being contrary to the principles of equity and justice.
Sezer approved the law Thursday, as he does not have a second veto right on a single law. But he reserves the right to apply to the constitutional court for its annulment.
The amnesty law is central to the prison reform because it is expected to free about half of Turkey's 72,000-strong prison population -- ANKARA (AFP)
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