© European Pressphoto Agency
Members of the Kurdish community demonstrated in Paris Thursday.
Three Kurdish women, including a founding member of the militant Kurdistan Workers Party were shot dead in Paris in execution-style killings that could be aimed at derailing peace talks to end a three-decade war with the Turkish government.

French police said on Thursday that the killings, which took place on Wednesday afternoon in a Kurdish community center in central Paris, appeared to be targeted assassinations. The antiterrorist department of the Paris prosecutor's office said it had launched an investigation.

One of those killed was Sakine Cansiz, a founding member of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, the Turkish government said. The PKK took up arms against the Turkish state three decades ago with the aim of securing self-rule for the estimated 15 million Kurds in southeast Turkey.

© Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
This undated picture shows Sakine Cansiz, a member of the outlawed Kurdistan Worker's Party, who was one of the three Kurdish women shot dead in Paris.
Another victim was Fidan Dogan, a representative in France of the Brussels-based Kurdish National Congress, according to a spokeswoman for the Paris prosecutor's office. The third was a guest, Leyla Soylemez, she said. The spokeswoman said it was too early to confirm that Ms. Cansiz was one of the victims.

The bodies were found after friends of Ms. Dogan went to the office looking for her around 1 a.m. and broke down the door after seeing blood stains at the entrance, said Songul Karabulut, head of external relations at the Kurdish National Congress.

The killings come amid rising optimism across much of Turkey over talks between the Turkish intelligence agency and the PKK's imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan, with Turkey aiming to press the group to disarm. While previous negotiations with the PKK - which is designated as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the U.S. and the European Union - were secretive and appeared to have stalled, the public acknowledgment of the latest contact has raised hopes for a renewed effort to end the war, which has killed 40,000 people since 1984.

Kurdish organizations said Ms. Cansiz, a Turkish national in her 50s, was a founding member of the PKK in the 1970s who was imprisoned by Turkish authorities for much of the 1980s following a military coup. Ms. Cansiz also spent time at Qandil, the PKK's mountain headquarters in northern Iraq, from which it regularly launches attacks against Turkish soldiers. She wasn't considered a hawk or likely to deviate from the PKK line, analysts said. She had been a political refugee in France since 1998, said Ms. Karabulut.

The killings spotlighted how the negotiation process was vulnerable to sabotage from parties opposed to resolution, analysts said. "We are bound to see acts designed to derail this process and I think this is Act One. I am surprised that the action has taken this form; I would have expected an incident closer to home and unfortunately we may see something similar in the future," said Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat now with the Carnegie Endowment in Brussels.

In Turkey, politicians called for calm and urged hawkish parties opposed to negotiations not to exploit the killings to derail the talks.

"Unfortunately some may see the incident as an opportunity. Everybody should come to their senses and think and do what is their duty," President Abdullah Gul said.

At the scene on Thursday morning, French riot police deployed to oversee a group of several hundred mourners, some of whom carried flags bearing the face of Mr. Ocalan. Many blamed Turkey for the killings, while some joined in cries denouncing Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

"Three women were shot down, killed, without a doubt executed," French Interior Minister Manuel Valls told people gathered close to the scene. "Be assured of the determination of French authorities to expose the details of this affair."

Turkey's largest Kurdish party, the BDP, said it was dispatching four lawmakers to Paris to assist the investigation and help to prepare the funerals.

Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, said the incident might be attributed to internal score-settling within the PKK. "We have seen inner conflict in the PKK before....I am not sure who has done this, but there are those who would try to sabotage the process," said AKP Deputy Chairman Huseyn Celik.

A PKK spokesman said the Turkish government's response was suspicious, and that the group was investigating what it called a "planned, professional assassination."

"These three Kurdish women politicians were murdered in the middle of Paris, unarmed and unprotected. They were in an institution which was said to be under continuous surveillance....It is suspicious that, before the French police has even started an investigation into this...some media outlets close to the AKP government in Turkey make accusations against the PKK," the spokesman said.

Human rights watchdog Amnesty International said on Thursday that the investigation should be "prompt and thorough."

The emergence of public talks has spotlighted the role of PKK leader Mr. Ocalan, worshiped by some of his PKK followers but reviled by many Turks for his role directing the Kurdish insurgency in the 1980s and 1990s. Mr. Ocalan, who was arrested by Turkish special forces in 1999, is being held in solitary confinement on a Turkish island in the sea of Marmara.

The process remains fraught with political challenges, including internal fighting among PKK factions that disagree on whether direct talks should be held with the Turkish government, analysts said.

"Because the talks have been publicized, we have to think the government is convinced that they can work....But there is a real threat of the PKK splitting, and attacks from hard-line elements opposed to negotiations could derail the whole process," said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.