Fears of religious violence spreading countrywide between Turkey’s two main Islamic sects. have been raised by a series of clashes in Istanbul and Ankara. By 15 March, at least 20 people had been killed and more than 100 injured in the disturbances involving members of the Alevi minority and the Sunni majority.

Machine-gun attacks on four coffee houses frequented by Alevis in Istanbul’s deprived Gazi district three days previously sparked the violence. Street battles on 13 March in Gazi between security forces and demonstrators against the attacks accounted for at least 16 of the deaths. The Istanbul governor’s office imposed an indefinite curfew in the district and adjoining areas starting at 4 pm that afternoon, as the cabinet went into emergency session.

Analysts say a combination of economic deprivation and Alevi resentment at Sunni dominance lies behind the violence. Alevi’s make up 25-30 per cent of Turkey’s population.

Alevi cultural associations link the current violence to an incident in the central Anatolian city of Sivas in July 1993, when 37 writers and intellectuals, most of them Alevis, were killed in an arson attack by Sunni extremists. Alevi leaders say the extremists have been encouraged by the lenient jail sentences given to the arsonists.

Another factor adding to Alevi concerns has been the rise of the Islamist conservative Welfare Party (RP), which won control of Istanbul and Ankara in the 1994 municipal elections.