* Reform could boost Erdogan's prospects in expected
* Pro-Kurdish HDP politicians to visit militant leader
* HDP leader denies deal to support Erdogan electoral bid
(Adds lawmaker's quotes, clash overnight)
By Gulsen Solaker
ANKARA, June 25 Turkey's government plans to
present to parliament within days a reform bill to advance its
peace process with Kurdish militants, in a move that may boost
support for Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan ahead of a
presidential election in August.
Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay told reporters while in
Bucharest on Tuesday that the government had completed work on a
legislative framework for the peace process and was seeking
ministers' signatures for the bill.
"I gave a presentation on it at the last cabinet meeting. A
decision was made and within a couple of days we will present it
to parliament as a draft law," he said in comments broadcast on
Turkish television on Wednesday.
Atalay's comments come a week before the ruling AK Party
announces its candidate - widely expected to be Erdogan - for
Turkey's first direct presidential election, due in August.
Kurds account for around a fifth of Turkey's population, and
their support could be decisive for an Erdogan bid, although an
opinion poll this week suggested he could still win enough
support without their backing.
The move also comes amid growing conflict in neighbouring
Iraq between Sunni Islamist insurgents and government forces.
While the Turkish reform package has long been on the table and
is not seen as related to events in Iraq, it could in the long
run also help cement positive relations with Iraqi Kurdistan.
Erdogan began peace talks with jailed militant leader
Abdullah Ocalan in 2012 to end a three-decade insurgency by his
Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that has killed 40,000 people.
Increased militant activity and street protests in recent
months have sowed doubts over the prospects for a final deal.
Deputies from the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party
(HDP) were expected to discuss the bill with Ocalan when they
visit him in jail on Imrali island this week, MP Pervin Buldan
told Reuters. He said the deputies did not yet know what the
"I anticipate he has received this bill and will share it
with us. It has to be assessed as a positive step. It will give
a legal guarantee to the process," she said.
Pro-Kurdish politicians have long sought such a guarantee.
Party sources said they would need to see the contents of the
bill before lending it their support.
"The law (will) recognise a negotiation process, providing
an underlying state guarantee to shore up efforts until the
ultimate goal of surrendering weapons is realised," lawmaker
Idris Baluken, who has met both with Ocalan and the PKK to
facilitate the process, told Reuters.
The legal framework should also include improved conditions
for Ocalan, including allowing him to establish direct contact
with the PKK and non-governmental groups.
"Right now we have no legal guarantees. We could be
prosecuted and, simply put, face life in prison under the
current laws if the climate were to suddenly change," he said.
According to the Hurriyet newspaper, the law will also
facilitate the rehabilitation of militants.
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 call 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.
In a sign of how precarious the talks are, PKK fighters
exchanged fire with a special forces unit in a rural district of
Elazig province in eastern Turkey overnight, security sources
said. No one was hurt in the incident.
Protests have flared up in the mainly Kurdish southeast in
recent weeks over the construction of new military outposts,
with demonstrators blocking a highway between Diyarbakir city
and Bingol province. But that protest, which resulted in the
deaths of two protesters, has now come to an end.
It was not clear if the reform package would ease tensions
or guarantee Kurdish support for Erdogan.
HDP Chairman Selahattin Demirtas denied his party had made a
deal with the AK Party to support Erdogan in the presidential
election. Demirtas also indicated in an interview with Milliyet
newspaper published on Wednesday that he may run for president.
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.
(Additional reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley and Seyhmus Cakan;
Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Hugh Lawson)