ANKARA/WASHINGTON: The Kurds’ imprisoned rebel leader called Thursday for a “new era” of peace that includes an immediate cease-fire and the withdrawal of his fighters from Turkey, potentially ending one of the world’s longest, bloodiest insurgencies.
Abdullah Ocalan’s rebel group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, has been waging a nearly 30-year battle against the Turkish government, seeking autonomy and greater rights.
The Turkish government reacted cautiously but Ocalan’s announcement at a Kurdish spring festival was met with joy from the hundreds of thousands who gathered to hear it in Diyarbakir, the largest city in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast.
“We have reached the point where the guns must be silenced and where ideas must speak. A new era has started, where politics, not guns, are at the forefront,” Ocalan said in a call from prison relayed by pro-Kurdish legislators in both Kurdish and Turkish.
“A door is opening from the armed struggle toward the democratic struggle,” Ocalan said. “This is not an end. This is a new start.”
“We have reached the stage where our armed elements need to retreat beyond the border,” he said.
People in the sprawling crowd sang, danced and waved rebel flags or banners with images of Ocalan.
The United States welcomed Ocalan’s call as a “positive step.”
“This violence has claimed too many lives and too many futures, and must end,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement.
Nuland added that the U.S. also applauded “the courageous efforts of the government of Turkey and all parties concerned to achieve a peaceful resolution that will advance democracy in Turkey and improve the lives of all of Turkey’s citizens.
“The United States will continue to support the people of Turkey in their effort to finally resolve this issue and move toward a brighter future.”
Despite his 14-year incarceration on a prison island off Istanbul, Ocalan still wields great power over his rebel group. PKK commanders based in northern Iraq have declared support for the peace initiative and Kurdish fighters in Turkey were expected to heed Ocalan’s call and retreat to northern Iraq.
“We will implement with determination the process initiated by our chief Apo,” Ocalan’s No. 2 Murat Karayilan told the Firat News Agency.
“Everyone should know the PKK is as ready for peace as it is for war,” he said, but added: “The PKK does not want war under any circumstance.”
“The year 2013 will be one of solution, whether it is through war or peace,” Karayilan said.
Karayilan has effectively been in charge of the PKK since Ocalan was imprisoned for treason in 1999.
Turkish officials sounded a note of caution Thursday.
“I see [the call] as a positive development, but it is its implementation that is important,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said during a visit to the Netherlands. “We need to see to what extent [the rebels] respond to it.”
The prime minister added that Turkish security forces would cease operations against the rebels after the PKK fighters withdraw.
Ocalan’s message did not include a timeframe for his fighters’ retreat, suggesting that the Kurds may be expecting the government to take some confidence-building steps in the interim.
Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin, however, suggested earlier this week that the Kurdish withdrawal could be completed by the end of the year.