Protesters hold a banner reading "The will of the people , can not be usurped", as they take part in a demonstration in front of Peoples Democracy Party (HDP) headquarter, in Istanbul, on August 19, 2019. - The Turkish government removed three mayors from office on August 19, 2019 over alleged links to Kurdish militants, the interior ministry said. The mayors of Diyarbakir, Mardin and Van provinces in eastern Turkey -- all members of the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) elected in March -- were suspended. (Photo by Ozan KOSE / AFP)OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images
Protesters hold a banner reading 'The will of the people cannot be usurped' outside HDP headquarters in Istanbul on Monday after the dismissal of three HDP mayors © AFP

Turkey has dismissed the elected mayors of three predominantly Kurdish cities, accusing them of supporting terrorism, in what the opposition said was a further blow to the country’s electoral democracy.

The mayors of Diyarbakir, Van and Mardin, who together represent about 1.5m people, were removed from office over their links to an effort to deliver municipal funds and equipment to the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), Turkey’s interior ministry said on Monday.

The ministry accused the three elected officials, all from the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic party (HDP), of crimes including commanding and belonging to a terror group and propagandising on its behalf.

State-appointed governors will take over the responsibilities of the mayors, who are Adnan Selcuk Mizrakli of Diyarbakir, the region’s biggest city; Mardin’s Ahmet Turk; and Bedia Ozgokce Ertan of Van.

Police also on Monday detained more than 400 suspects in separate operations, the ministry said in a tweet. An HDP spokesperson said those arrested included city council members.

“This is an affront to democracy, a policy to intimidate and silence us,” Mr Turk said in a telephone interview. He denied the accusations against him.

The crackdown comes less than five months after Mr Turk and the others were elected to their posts. It suggests that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will continue to curtail the opposition after his party lost a string of seats in the March 31 municipal poll.

In 2016, his government stripped dozens of HDP mayors of their office and jailed thousands of the party’s officials and activists, part of a wider purge launched by Erdogan after a failed military coup amid renewed clashes with the PKK. The militant group has fought for greater Kurdish autonomy since the 1980s and is designated a terrorist organisation by Turkey.

MPs were also jailed, including Selahattin Demirtas, former HDP chairman.

This time, however, fighting with the PKK has largely ceased. Mr Erdogan last year lifted a post-coup state of emergency that had given him sweeping authorities.

Even before March’s election, Mr Erdogan had threatened to replace mayors if voters elected HDP candidates.

In Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, his party forced an election rerun after narrowly losing the mayor’s office to Ekrem Imamoglu of the main opposition Republican People’s party (CHP). Mr Imamoglu won the second vote with a record-setting margin of victory.

In a tweet, Mr Imamoglu said the dismissals of his counterparts in the Kurdish areas contravened democratic principles. “It is unacceptable to disregard the will of the people,” he wrote.

The dismissed mayors had alleged that the trustees appointed after the earlier purge had mired their city halls in millions of dollars of debt. Mr Turk accused the government of removing him in retaliation for disclosing evidence of corruption during the previous administration.

“This is a new and obvious political coup and a clear and hostile stance against the Kurdish people’s political will,” the HDP said in a statement.

Police fired water cannons during a skirmish in Diyarbakir after a few dozen protesters demonstrated outside city hall, a witness said.

The European Union said replacing the mayors raised “serious concern.”

“Dismissals and detentions of local politicians and appointment of trustees deprive voters of political representation at the local level and seriously risk damaging local democracy,” EU spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said in a statement.

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