Three Kurdish women, including a founder of a militant separatist group battling Turkish troops, were shot to death in Paris, French officials and Kurdish activists said Thursday. Hundreds of infuriated Kurds immediately flooded the neighborhood, with some claiming the deaths were a "political assassination" and blaming Turkey.
The slayings came as Turkey was holding peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers Party to try to persuade it to disarm. The conflict between the group, known as the PKK, and the Turkish government has claimed tens of thousands of lives since 1984.
Initial reports were contradictory but pointed to a grisly crime scene Thursday. One Kurdish organization said the door of the building where the women were found was smeared with blood and that two of the women were shot in the nape of their necks and one in the stomach. French radio reported that all three were shot in the head.
French Interior Minister Manuel Valls, who visited the Kurdistan Information Center in Paris where the bodies were found, said the deaths were "without doubt an execution." He called it a "totally intolerable act."
President Francois Hollande later called the crime "horrible" and added that he and other government officials had met regularly with one of the victims. He did not say which one.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the killings. A Turkish lawmaker with the ruling party claimed the women were slain in a dispute between factions of the PKK. The group, which seeks self-rule for Kurds in southeast Turkey, is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey and its allies, including the U.S. and the European Union.
But Kurdish protesters and a Kurdish lawmaker in Turkey claimed the Turkish government was involved.
The slayings were being investigated by France's anti-terrorism police, although it was not clear if the women were currently linked to the PKK. Turkey's Anadolu news agency identified one of the victims as Sakine Cansiz, a 50-something founding member of the PKK, but French officials would not formally confirm the name.
Devris Cimen, head of the Frankfurt-based Kurdish Center for Public Information, said Cansiz had received asylum from France in 1998.
The Paris prosecutors' office did confirm that the other two victims were Leyla Soylemez and Fidan Dogan and both were in their 20s. A news agency linked to the PKK, Firat news, said Dogan was the Paris representative of the Kurdistan National Congress. It said she joined the Kurdish movement in 1999.
Kurds are scattered over four countries — Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq — where they enjoy varying levels of freedom. In Turkey, they make up some 20 percent of the population and were long denied many rights, including speaking the Kurdish language.
In the PKK's 28-year insurgency, fighters frequently launch hit-and-run attacks from bases in northern Iraq, a largely autonomous Kurdish region. Turkey is now also worried about possible infiltration by Kurdish rebels from Syria, where Kurdish groups have reportedly grabbed power in some areas along the Syrian-Turkish border.
Emotions mounted Thursday as hundreds of Kurds filled the street in Paris outside the center where the bodies were found. Police erected barricades to try to contain the marching crowd. Some people waved Kurdish flags while others chanted angrily against the Turkish government.
"Where are French? Where is that solidarity? I think that the state of Turkey did this," said one man in the crowd, identifying himself only as Ali.
A group of Kurdish legislators headed to Paris to try to meet with France's interior minister. Lawmaker Nazmi Gur, one of the group, knew Dogan. He said she had French citizenship and frequently attended meetings at the European Parliament or the Council of Europe on matters related to Kurds.
Information about the slayings was scant and conflicting.
According to the Federation of Kurdish Associations of France, the three women were alone at the center Wednesday and were unreachable by telephone. In a statement, the group said friends went there after midnight and saw traces of blood on the door, so they broke it down and discovered the bodies.
It said the two of the women were shot in the neck and one in the stomach. RTL radio reported that all three were shot in the head.
The police would not immediately confirm those reports, except to say the bodies were found about 1:30 a.m. However, a French judicial official said there was no sign of a break-in, even by friends. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to talk to the media.
Selahattin Demirtas, the leader of a Kurdish political party in Turkey's parliament, called on the French government to shed light on the killings "without delay" and in a way that "leaves no room" for doubt.
"We want it to be known that that these assassinations — which were carried out in the busiest area of Paris — cannot be covered up," Demirtas said.
Huseyin Celik, the deputy chairman of Turkey's ruling party, said the attack appeared to be the result of "an internal feud" within the PKK, but did not provide any evidence to back that up. Celik also suggested the slayings were an attempt to derail the peace talks.
Gultan Kisanak, a leader of a Kurdish political party, called Cansiz "an idol of the Kurdish people and Kurdish women" and rejected the possibility of an internal PKK feud.
"She was a hero and true revolutionary who would not even waste a minute for the good of the Kurdish women," she said. "This is a trap placed on the path to a solution of the Kurdish problem, it is a political assassination."
"How dare they present the murder of a revolutionary as internal strife without any evidence?" she said in response to Celik's comment.
Songul Karabulut, who heads the foreign relations committee of the Kurdistan National Congress, told reporters that the people behind the killings clearly were "those who oppose peace."
"For us, this was not an act by one group or one individual, it was dark forces," he said. "Forces who refuse the solution of the Kurdish issue through peace."
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country's intelligence agency is meeting with the PKK's jailed leader, Abdullah Ocalan, on a prison island off Istanbul where he is serving a life sentence since 1999. Two Kurdish legislators were allowed to travel to island last week to participate in the talks.
Turkish government officials said a PKK attack on a military post this week was an attempt to derail the talks. Erdogan said at a press conference in Senegal Thursday that Turkey was determined to press ahead with the talks despite the events in Paris, which he suggested could be the result of internal strife or an act to sabotage the talks.
The PKK does have a history of internal killings. However, while many Kurdish activists and militants were victims of extra-judicial killings blamed on Turkish government forces in the 1990s, it's not known whether the PKK also targeted any exiled Kurds in Europe.
Turkish officials say the PKK raises funds through extortion or other criminal activities in European countries. Turkey frequently accuses France, Germany and the Netherlands — home to large numbers of Kurds from Turkey — of supporting the PKK, of failing to extradite wanted militants and of not backing Turkey's "fight against terrorism."
More than 150,000 Kurds and people of Kurdish descent live in France, many around Paris, and up to 90 percent of them are from Turkey, according to an academic study. Kurds from Iran, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere make up the remainder.
French police have occasionally arrested Kurds suspected of illegally financing the PKK.