Kurdish rebels declare formal ceasefire with Turkey

ISTANBUL Sat Mar 23, 2013 2:02pm EDT

1 of 2. Masked supporters of jailed Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan stand on the stage as one reads a statement during a gathering to celebrate Newroz in the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir March 21, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Umit Bektas

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ISTANBUL (Reuters) - The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militant group declared a "formal and clear ceasefire" with Turkey on Saturday after the rebels' jailed leader this week ordered a halt to the decades-long armed campaign for autonomy.

"Since March 21 and from now on, we as a movement, as the PKK ... officially and clearly declare a ceasefire," said Murat Karayilan, the PKK's field commander, in a video message apparently taped at a rebel holdout in northern Iraq.

His comments were translated from Kurdish in the video posted on Firat News, a website with links to the militants.

Abdullah Ocalan, held in an island prison since his 1999 conviction for treason, called on the PKK to cease fire and withdraw from Turkey in a letter read to hundreds of thousands of supporters in the main Kurdish city of Diyarbakir on March 21, the Kurds' traditional new year holiday.

Ocalan, called Apo for short, has been in negotiations with state officials from his prison cell since October to end the conflict that has claimed 40,000 lives since it began in 1984.

"The decision by our leader Apo is all of ours. We accept this decision, we agree with it," Karayilan said in the video, flanked by female and male fighters dressed in baggy green fatigues.

"We see it as historic, correct and very important and as the start of a new period."

Karayilan said his rebels would complete a withdrawal if the government and parliament "fulfilled their responsibilities and created the foundation for a withdrawal," without elaborating further.

The declaration from Karayilan, who is based in the remote mountains of northern Iraq from where he directs the PKK insurgency against Turkey, had been expected but was still an important sign the outlawed PKK will abide by Ocalan's orders.

Despite his 14 years in captivity, Ocalan still wields enormous clout over PKK militants as well as millions of nationalist Kurds.

RISKS

However, there are still dangers of division over the terms of a peace deal or between the figures negotiating it. The process could also be complicated by the ambitions of other Kurdish groups across the border in Syria, Iran and Iraq.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has taken a considerable political risk in allowing negotiations with Ocalan to unfold in such a public way. Previous efforts conducted behind closed doors over the decades to resolve the conflict have all failed.

Ocalan is reviled by many Turks for leading an insurgency that threatened to partition Turkey in its earlier days.

The government has agreed on a commission of "wise men" to facilitate the peace process, Turkish media reported on Saturday.

The commission will consist of 30 well-known figures including writers Yashar Kemal and Hasan Cemal to ensure the process runs smoothly and has public support, NTV news channel said.

Kurds, who make up about 20 percent of Turkey's population of 75 million people, want greater cultural and political rights.

Many say they do not see their future in an independent Kurdistan but in Turkey, the world's 18th-biggest economy and a candidate for European Union membership.

The United States and the EU, along with NATO member Turkey, consider the PKK a terrorist organization.

(Reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley; Additional reporting by Seyhmus Cakan in Diyarbakir; Editing by Sophie Hares)

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