A widening hunger strike by hundreds of Kurdish militants in prisons across Turkey is piling pressure on the government to address demands for greater Kurdish minority rights and avoid a repeat of previous protests when dozens starved to death.
Some 900 prisoners in more than 50 jails have joined the action since it was launched in September, with improved jail conditions for militant leader Abdullah Ocalan, imprisoned on an island in the Marmara Sea south of Istanbul, their main demand.
Those on hunger strike have mostly been convicted of membership of the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) or an allied Iranian group, Human Rights Association (IHD) chairman Ozturk Turkdogan told Reuters.
The PKK - designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and European Union - took up arms 28 years ago with the aim of carving out a Kurdish state, in a conflict which has since killed 40,000 people. It has stepped up its campaign in recent months with a spate of attacks on military targets.
"The nightmare which awaits us is clear: if government officials remain insensitive, more than a thousand youths are approaching death step-by-step," said a statement signed by more than 100 academics and writers, published by some Turkish media.
They urged Ankara to listen to the protesters' demands, which also include the right to use the Kurdish language in court defence testimony and the inclusion of Kurdish language teaching on the national curriculum.
A jailed member of parliament and the jailed mayor of the eastern city of Van, both from the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), joined the hunger strike in recent days.
The BDP has held talks on the strike with President Abdullah Gul, whose post is largely ceremonial, but not with Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan or his cabinet. The Justice Ministry said the strikers were examined regularly and given vitamins. "We are monitoring it and have taken the necessary measures," an official from the Justice Ministry said.
The state has held secret talks with the PKK in recent years but the revelation of those negotiations, unpopular with many Turks who revile the PKK, and the resurgent fighting has undermined hopes of an end to the conflict.
The protest represents a fresh challenge for Erdogan's government as it approaches an election cycle beginning next year, with the upsurge in PKK violence a key voter concern.
A government initiative in recent years to boost the rights of some 12-15 million Kurds in Turkey, mainly through language and cultural reforms, has failed to satisfy Kurdish activists who seek deeper political change.
Among the protesters were also people accused of links to the Union of Kurdistan Communities (KCK), which prosecutors say is a parallel state apparatus formed by the PKK. Hundreds of people are being tried over KCK membership but courts are refusing defendants' attempts to give testimony in Kurdish.
Turkdogan said the prisoners were consuming sugared and salted water as well as vitamins and said their health would start deteriorating as the hunger strike entered its 42nd day. "According to doctors, the 40th day is a critical stage and signs of lasting harm could emerge. If it continues to 70, 80, 90 days there could be deaths," he said.
He said doctors should be given free access to the hunger strikers and warned against forcible intervention by security forces to end the protest given previous ill-fated operations. A dozen prisoners died in a two-month hunger strike against poor prison conditions in 1996.
Dozens more inmates died in a hunger strike in 2000 to protest against moving inmates from dormitories to cells. Thirty prisoners and two soldiers were also killed when security forces stormed jails in December that year in an operation known as "Return to Life" to end the protest.
"One of the biggest and most painful death fasts claimed the lives of 122 people. Five hundred people irreversibly lost their minds or their health," Koray Caliskan, a political scientist at the Bosphorus University, said of the protests in 2000.
He said the authorities should act rapidly to end the latest hunger strike by ending Ocalan's isolation and allowing Kurdish court testimony. "If nothing is done soon hundreds of youths will lose their lives. What they want is legitimate," he wrote in the liberal Radikal daily.