Middle East

Ocalan says peace talks with Turkey progressing

FILE - In this June 29, 1999 file photo, Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan, right, stands next to a Turkish gendarme during his trial after he was sentenced to death at a special court on charges of treason for leading a 15-year fight for Kurdish autonomy in southeast Turkey. (AP Photo/Abdurrahman Antakyali, Anatolia, File)

ANKARA, Turkey: Many had hoped that imprisoned Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan would urge thousands of his fighters Monday to obey a cease-fire as a major step toward peace with Turkey.

Instead, Kurdish legislators who met with him relayed a call urging Turkey to enact reforms to improve the rights of Kurds.

Turkey and the rebels are engaged in talks to end the bitter three-decade-old-conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people since 1984. The effort, which reportedly would include the declaration of a cease-fire, the rebels' retreat from Turkey and their disarming, has been described as historic and the best hope for an end of hostilities.

Monday's set-back, however, shows the less-than-smooth path that lies ahead.

"It is a long and challenging process," said Cengiz Aktar, a professor of international relations at Bahcesehir University. "A strong mutual trust must be maintained."

In a message relayed by Kurdish legislators who traveled to his prison island off Istanbul, Ocalan said the peace talks were making "positive progress" and that he planned to make a "historic" announcement to coincide with the March 21 spring festival. He said his call would outline all the "military and political steps" of the peace process.

But Ocalan also suggested that Turkey's parliament needs to take steps to advance the peace process.

It was a clear indication that his group was looking for reciprocal steps from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan who has not revealed details of talks, most probably mindful of a possible nationalist backlash. Turkish officials have said the rebels must lay down their arms and withdraw from Turkey while reports indicate that Kurds in return expect Turkey to increase Kurdish rights.

A deal with the PKK could give Erdogan the key support he seeks from Kurds in his aim to replace Turkey's political system with one that would give more power to a popularly elected president. Erdogan is widely believed to want to run for president next year.

The government says the peace efforts have widespread popular support, although Ocalan is a reviled figure among Turks, who hold him responsible for the tens of thousands of deaths in the armed conflict and terror attacks.

The latest search for a political settlement follows a surge in violence last summer that killed several civilians and hundreds of rebels and Turkish soldiers.

A Syrian Kurdish group linked to the PKK has gained control in several areas of northern Syria amid the civil war there, adding to Turkey's worries.

"In order for the withdrawal to take place quickly, and for the peace to be lasting, I hope that Parliament will fulfill the obligations of its historic mission at the same pace," Ocalan said in a message read by Kurdish party chairman Selahattin Demirtas.

It was an apparent reference to Kurdish demands for reforms that would free thousands of Kurdish activists jailed on terrorism charges for alleged links to the PKK. A bill to amend the law is being discussed now by a parliamentary committee.

Kurds also want a new constitution, currently being drafted by four political parties, to grant Kurds equal rights as ethnic Turks and to give more powers to local authorities.

In an important symbolic gesture, the rebels last week released eight captive Turkish soldiers and officials they had been holding in bases in northern Iraq.

"Up until now, the PKK has made concessions, but from now on the Turkish government also needs to take steps that would encourage the Kurdish side to continue with the negotiations," said Ragip Duran of Istanbul's Galatasaray University. "Otherwise objections, leaving the talks, internal debates and the resumption of attacks are all possibilities."

Ocalan is expected to outline his vision for peace during Thursday's spring festival.

"On the issue of arms," Ocalan was quoted as saying, "I want to resolve the issue quickly, without losing any time and without the loss of one single life."

"In order for this to come into practice, the support of the parliament and political parties would be invaluable," he added.

Murat Karayilan, who took over the PKK's command after Ocalan's imprisonment in 1999, told Firat News, a website close to the rebels, that his group has decided to support the peace initiative although the PKK has some unspecified reservations about it.

Turkey and the West label the PKK a terrorist organization.





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