ISTANBUL: Turkey welcomed Friday Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan’s cease-fire call as a crucial step toward peace, but obstacles remained in resolving a conflict that has torn the country for nearly three decades and killed around 45,000 people.
“This is the Spring of Turkey,” declared the headline of liberal Taraf daily, printed on a picture showing the vast crowd of people who gathered Thursday in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir to hear the message from jailed Ocalan.
“Farewell to arms,” read the headline of the mainstream Milliyet daily while one in mass-circulation Hurriyet declared: “The era of weapons is over.”
After months of negotiations with the state, Ocalan Thursday called on his Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) guerillas to lay down arms and withdraw from Turkey, raising hopes for an end to the three-decade conflict.
The call, which came in a letter Ocalan wrote from his isolated island prison cell, did not specify any solid plans or expectations from the Turkish government in return for the initiative.
Instead, Ocalan said it was time for “politics to prevail, not arms,” delivering a message to his movement to engage for a “democratic model.”
Ocalan also effectively delivered a call on Ankara to release thousands of Kurdish activists and local politicians held behind bars on charges of links to the PKK.
Although hopeful, many in Turkey questioned the possibility of peace, “after so many years, so many clashes, and so many funerals,” wrote columnist Fuat Keyman in Milliyet daily.
A single initiative will not be able to solve a problem that spans centuries, wrote historian Murat Bardakci in the Haberturk daily. “There is no example of it” in history.
Still others speculated Ankara was making “secret promises” in return, including the release of Ocalan from jail, where he has been serving a life sentence since 1999 after his death sentence was commuted.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s political adviser Yalcin Akdogan denied such speculation, telling CNN Turk television late Thursday that “it is not a give and take process ... it is not a bargaining.”
Some observers have warned that although Ocalan’s message was warmly greeted in the mainly Kurdish Diyarbakir, the reaction in the rest of the country has been more measured.
“There was a big excitement in Diyarbakir, but a deep silence in the rest of the country,” wrote Ertugrul Ozkok in Hurriyet. “It could be a sign of very good things or bad ones. Let’s all pray it is the first one,” he wrote.
An Erdogan critic, Cumhuriyet columnist Bekir Copskun, wrote: “It will soon be known what concessions the Republic of Turkey has made for the one in jail.”
Others, however, disagreed, saying Ocalan’s call opened up a new era after Erdogan became the first leader to sit at the table with the “nemesis” others before him vehemently ignored.
“The era of the Second Republic started yesterday,” columnist Yildiray Ogur wrote in Taraf.
“Erdogan will go down in history as its founder, as the leader who solved the Kurdish issue,” he added.
Both Erdogan and Ocalan appear to have staked their political futures on the renewed push to end the 29-year armed campaign for self-rule that has killed some 45,000 people, mostly Kurds.
Ocalan, 64, is known as “Apo,” or uncle, to Kurds, but is branded a “baby killer” by many Turks.
He has been serving a life sentence for treason on Imrali island off Istanbul since 1999.
At least four previous cease-fire attempts called by Ocalan were rejected by Ankara or torpedoed by rebel groups, triggering increased unrest.
The latest round of peace talks was launched last year.