ISTANBUL: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Tuesday his government would never surrender to Kurdish militants but that he was cautiously hopeful that peace talks could end a conflict that has brought nothing but “pain, blood and tears” to Turkey.
Late last year Turkish intelligence officials began talks with imprisoned Kurdish militant leader Abdullah Ocalan on how to end an insurgency which has killed more than 40,000 people since rebels loyal to him took up arms back in 1984.
The talks drew fierce criticism from nationalist circles which accused the government of going soft on Ocalan’s Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), designated a terrorist organization by Turkey, the European Union and the United States.
In a sign of Ankara’s continuing hard line against the guerrillas, media reports said Turkish warplanes struck PKK targets in northern Iraq Sunday and Monday, the first such attacks since details of the Ocalan talks emerged.
“Nobody can make us surrender. We did not take a step back in the face of any attack, we will not take any steps back,” Erdogan told his ruling AK Party in parliament in the capital Ankara.
“Violence and terror has brought nothing to this country but pain, blood and tears. Believe me, we have one goal: that is to halt the mothers’ tears,” he said.
“We are cautious, careful but hopeful,” Erdogan added.
The nascent talks were overshadowed last week by the execution-style killings of three Kurdish female activists in Paris, which Erdogan has suggested could be the result of an internal feud in the PKK or a bid to derail the peace talks.
The PKK, however, blamed shadowy elements within the Turkish state or foreign powers. Ocalan issued a call Monday through his brother for French police to solve the murders, but gave no indication that the killings would disrupt the peace talks.
Ocalan’s younger brother Mehmet, who visited him in prison on the island of Imrali near Istanbul, said the PKK leader did not comment on the peace process but may make a statement later if Kurdish political party leaders visit him.
Several Turkish jets attacked PKK forces in northern Iraq Sunday in the first operation in 12 days and struck again Monday evening, broadcaster CNN Turk said. It did not identify a source for the report, which could not be independently confirmed.
However the Firat news agency, which is close to the militants, reported the PKK as saying Turkish warplanes carried out a series of attacks in the region Monday. It did not give details of any damage caused by the attacks.
Dialogue between Ocalan and government officials, which media reports say yielded a framework for full negotiations, began after Ocalan called on hundreds of PKK inmates to end a hunger strike last November. His brother Mehmet had conveyed that appeal after a previous visit.
“He was very saddened by the massacre in France. He condemns it,” Mehmet Ocalan told reporters on his return from Imrali late Monday. “They must solve this massacre right away.”
“This massacre was a sign. Hence he was very downcast. He sent his condolences to the families of the three Kurdish women who were killed,” he added, without clarifying exactly what the sign was supposed to be.
French investigators have given no indication as to who might be responsible for the deaths.
Ocalan was held in virtual isolation after his capture in 1999. Access to him remains tightly controlled; his lawyers have not seen him for 16 months.
Kurdish politicians have demanded improvements in his prison conditions. Erdogan said last week that such changes would be limited but that he would be given a television.
Asked about those reports, Mehmet said his brother had not requested a television. “It was not his own demand. The prison governor convinced him and that’s why he accepted,” he said.
One of the three women killed in Paris was Sakine Cansiz, a founding PKK member well-known to Kurdish nationalists and believed to be an important PKK financier in Europe. The majority of PKK fighters are based in northern Iraq.
The bodies of the three were Wednesday set to be flown to Diyarbakir, the largest city in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast, ahead of the funeral ceremony Thursday.
Erdogan and other political leaders called for calm ahead of the funerals and warned against provoking trouble.
“Our sensible citizens won’t rise to the bait,” he said. “Some want to destroy the peace process we have begun. This must not be allowed to happen.”