* Ocalan says peace process enters 'new stage'
* Protesters block highway in southeast for last week
* Deputy PM says working on new road map
By Daren Butler
ISTANBUL, June 2 Turkey's peace talks with
Kurdish rebels are advancing despite recent unrest in the
southeast, representatives of both sides said, and could boost
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's hopes of becoming president.
Erdogan is widely expected to run in Turkey's first direct
presidential election in August and support from its Kurdish
minority, which accounts for around a fifth of the population,
could be key to his chances of success.
He initiated peace talks with jailed militant leader
Abdullah Ocalan in 2012 to end a three-decade insurgency which
has killed 40,000 people. Increased militant activity and street
protests in recent months have sowed fears over prospects for a
However, Ocalan told a delegation of pro-Kurdish politicians
visiting him on his prison island of Imrali, near Istanbul, on
Sunday that "the process has reached a new stage."
"At the point reached, there was a significant hope for a
serious beginning and this hope must be protected and
developed," Ocalan said, according to a statement released by
the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) delegation.
Erdogan has invested significant political capital in peace
efforts, boosting cultural and language rights at the risk of
alienating some of his grassroots support. Ankara, the United
States and the European Union term the PKK a terrorist group and
Ocalan remains widely reviled among Turks.
A ceasefire called by Ocalan in March 2013 has largely held,
but the PKK halted a rebel withdrawal to bases in northern Iraq
last summer, complaining about the slow pace of negotiations.
Sirri Sureyya Onder, deputy HDP leader and a member of the
delegation to Imrali, said the government was showing the will
to put the peace talks on a legal footing and had moved beyond
bureaucratic talk to discussions between political delegations.
"If the government approaches this seriously, many things
viewed as problem areas could disappear within a couple of
weeks," Onder was quoted as saying by Dogan news agency, adding
that talks with Ocalan were set to become more frequent.
The optimistic tone follows a meeting held by Erdogan and
top officials on May 19 to discuss the peace process, talks
which Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay said were "critical."
"The decision was taken to work on a new, more concrete road
map and to take faster steps towards a conclusion," Atalay said
of the meeting in an interview on the Kanal 7 channel on Sunday.
Since then, protests have flared up in the mainly Kurdish
southeast over the construction of new military outposts, with
demonstrators blocking a highway between Diyarbakir city and
Bingol province for the whole of last week in what Atalay
described as a sabotage attempt.
Three soldiers trying to remove protesters blocking a road
were wounded late on Saturday after coming under fire from
militants located on surrounding hills, Milliyet daily reported.
Separately, Kurdish guerrillas shot dead a state-sponsored
militia member in the southeast last week.
"Some are uneasy with the settlement process and are looking
at how they can sabotage it," Atalay said, adding that security
forces would intervene as necessary.
"We as the government are showing our determination on the
settlement process and will continue to do so until the end.
There is no deviation in our will," he added.
The pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) won a re-run
local election ahead of Erdogan's AK Party in eastern Agri
province on Sunday, a development which could help lower tension
in the region and foster positive sentiment towards the talks.
However, nationalist unease at the talks between the
government and the PKK was laid bare on Sunday when an
unidentified group attacked a pro-Kurdish party stand were
signatures were being collected to call for Ocalan's released.
Four people were wounded in the gun attack in the Istanbul
district of Gaziosmanpasa, media reports said.
The PKK took up arms against Turkey in 1984 with the aim of
carving out a separate state in the southeast for the country's
Kurds. They subsequently moderated their demands, seeking
increased political and cultural rights which were long denied.
(Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Tom Heneghan)