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PARIS/ISTANBUL (Reuters) - A woman who helped found the Kurdish PKK rebel movement and two other women were found shot dead in Paris overnight after execution-style killings that cast a shadow over peace moves between Turkey and the guerrillas.
The bodies of Sakine Cansiz, a founder of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in the early 1980s, and her two fellow activists were found in the early hours of Thursday at an institute in the French capital that has close links to the PKK.
They appeared to have been shot in the head, a French police source said. Kurdish media said one woman was also shot in the abdomen. Workers had broken in to the room at the Information Centre of Kurdistan after seeing blood stains on a door.
Cansiz was a prominent PKK figure, initially as a fighter and later in charge of the group's civil affairs in Europe, according to a Kurdish lawyer who knew her. A 1995 photograph shows her standing next to militant leader Abdullah Ocalan, wearing olive battle fatigues and clutching an assault rifle.
Ocalan is now in a Turkish jail and the killings came shortly after Turkey announced it had resumed peace negotiations with him - something likely to anger hardliners within the PKK.
French investigators gave no immediate indication of who might be behind the murders; the PKK has seen intermittent internal feuding during an armed campaign in the mountainous Turkish southeast that has killed some 40,000 people since 1984.
Turkish nationalist militants have in the past also been accused of killing Kurdish activists, who want regional autonomy. But such incidents have been confined to Turkey.
"The choice of Cansiz as a target is because she was symbolic of the Kurdish movement," said Franck Cecen, a Kurdish lawyer in Paris who met Cansiz at least half a dozen times and described her as exceptionally well-spoken and well-educated.
"She had been one of its founding members, she had spent years in prison for her convictions, and she had become a historical figure," he told Reuters, adding that he found it hard to believe fellow Kurds would have taken her life.
"It is difficult to imagine that this was done by a Kurdish cell," he said. "Everyone is talking about a Turkish role."
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said it was too early to apportion blame: "This may be an internal reckoning," he said. "We are engaged in a struggle against terrorism. We want to make progress, but there are people who don't want this. This could be a provocative undertaking by these people."
The killings came shortly after Erdogan's government announced it had resumed talks with Ocalan, who has been confined on a prison island near Istanbul since 1999. Talks to end the conflict would almost certainly raise tensions within the Kurdish movement over demands and terms of any ceasefire.
Among a crowd that gathered behind police lines at the Paris Kurdish institute were onlookers chanting slogans and waving yellow flags bearing Ocalan's likeness. France is home tens of thousands of Kurdish immigrants, of who some are PKK activists.
"Rest assured that French authorities are determined to get to the bottom of these unbearable acts," French Interior Minister Manuel Valls said at the scene, adding the killings were "surely an execution". His predecessor, Claude Gueant, said Turkey's engagement in the peace process led him to conclude it was unlikely that Ankara's agents were behind the killings.
Any Turkish government contacts with the PKK, deemed a terrorist group by Ankara, Washington and the European Union, are highly controversial in the Turkish political establishment.
Last year, the months preceding the move to talks, saw some of the worst bloodshed of the three-decades-old conflict. Television footage of soldiers' coffins returning home draped in the red Turkish flag inflamed nationalist tensions.
Valls identified one of the victims as the head of the Information Centre and said homicide and anti-terrorism units had been assigned to investigate the murders. A police source confirmed that all held Turkish citizenship.
The two victims other than Cansiz were named as Fidan Dogan, 28, and Leyla Soylemez, 25.
"This is a political crime, there is no doubt about it," Remzi Kartal, a leader of the Kurdistan National Congress, an umbrella group of Kurdish organisations in Europe, told Reuters.
"Ocalan and the Turkish government have started a peace process, they want to engage in dialogue, but there are parties that are against resolving the Kurdish question and want to sabotage the peace process," he said.
The Kurdish question has taken on a particular urgency with the rise of Kurdish groups in Iraq, where they have self-rule in the north, and in Syria. Turkey fears Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could encourage Kurds to feed militancy in Turkey.
Many Turks fear such autonomy as the PKK is seeking could stoke demands for an independent Kurdish homeland, within Turkey and beyond its borders, that would undermine the Turkish state.
The Firat news agency, which is close to the PKK, said another of the three victims was the Paris representative of the Brussels-based Kurdistan National Congress. It said the murder weapon was believed to have been fitted with a silencer.
"A couple of colleagues saw blood stains at the door. When they broke the door open and entered they saw the three women had been executed," French Kurdish Associations Federation Chairman Mehmet Ulker was reported as saying by Firat.
Female militants have played a significant role in the PKK's insurgency, partly reflecting a principle of equality within the group's Marxist ideology. In some cases, desire to avenge the killing of other family members was the motivation for joining, for others it was a way out of family repression, analysts say.
The government and PKK have agreed a framework for a peace plan, according to Turkish media reports, in talks which would have been unthinkable in Turkey only a few years ago. Ocalan is widely reviled by Turks who hold him responsible for a conflict that burns at the heart of the nation.
Erdogan has introduced some reforms allowing Kurdish language broadcasting and some other concessions on language; but activists are demanding more freedom in education and administration.
Several members of the Kurdish community in Paris said that Cansiz, who was in her 50s, was an emblematic figure who had been imprisoned in Turkey before obtaining asylum in France.
"She was in charge of communicating information on events in Turkey, she would denounce arbitrary arrests, unsolved murders," said a member of the Arts and Culture Academy of Kurdistan who asked not to be identified.
Turkish political analyst Emre Uslu, who previously worked in Turkey's counter-terrorism police unit, said in a blog that the killing of Cansiz could point to a split within the PKK.
He said Cansiz was a leading member of a faction within the PKK that had in the past opposed Ocalan's moves towards peace.
"For Turkey to sit down with the PKK before its internal problems are solved is considerably problematic," Uslu said.
Turkey's pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy (BDP) party, two of whose members were allowed to pay a rare visit last week to Ocalan, condemned the killings: "We call on our people to hold protest meetings wherever they are to condemn this massacre and stand up for the Kurdish people's martyrs," its leaders said.
Additional reporting by Nicolas Bertin and Yves Clarisse in Paris, Diadie Ba in Dakar and Jonathon Burch in Ankara; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Ralph Boulton and Alastair Macdonald