ANKARA Turkey opened the door to talks with Kurdish militants it brands terrorists on Monday, raising hopes of a push to end a conflict which has killed tens of thousands of people and stunted development in its mainly Kurdish southeast.
Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin said talks would be held with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militant group, Turkey's main domestic security threat, which took up arms almost three decades ago and seeks Kurdish autonomy.
"These talks have been held as and when deemed necessary in the past, and will be held in the future," Ergin told reporters in Ankara. He did not elaborate.
Talks between the Turkish state and the PKK were unthinkable until only a few years ago and more recent contacts have proved politically fraught, with parts of the nationalist opposition strongly condemning any suggestion of negotiations.
Turkey, the United States and the European Union designate the PKK a terrorist organization. But Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan is under pressure to stem the violence, which has included bomb attacks in major cities such as well as clashes with the military in the mountainous southeast.
Ergin's comments followed the end of a 68-day hunger strike by hundreds of PKK militants in prisons across Turkey on Sunday, after an appeal from their jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan.
Imprisoned on Imrali island in the Marmara Sea south of Istanbul since his capture in 1999, Ocalan has significant support among Kurds but is widely reviled by Turks who hold him responsible for the violence.
Ocalan's call from Imrali came after he held a couple of months of talks with Turkish officials, according to Nihat Ali Ozcan, security analyst at the TEPAV think-tank in Ankara, adding that the talks could lead to a PKK ceasefire.
Erdogan's room for manoeuvre will be limited by concern about the growing power of a PKK-linked party in Syria and 2014 elections when he hopes to take over a new executive presidency. Any concessions to the PKK could undermine his popularity.
"Erdogan needs two or three years of silence. Talks can continue until then and during that time the PKK will try and secure more concessions," Ozcan said.
Recordings leaked last year showed senior intelligence officials had also held secret meetings with the PKK in Oslo.
"We are all for talking to Ocalan and any other parties so long as it produces clear and concrete outcomes," Faruk Logoglu, vice chairman of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), told Reuters.
"But the record of this government is such that they do not really radiate confidence that they are conducting these talks in a clear, results-orientated way without leading to unacceptable demands from the PKK," he said.
Idris Baluken, a senior member of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which had supported the hunger strikers, said the end of the action had created an opportunity for the government but that it would have to negotiate with Ocalan if it wanted to end the conflict.
However, there was no evidence that any specific government initiative was imminent. The possibility of PKK talks has been raised by Ergin and other government officials in the past, most recently by Erdogan himself in September.
The hunger strike had been a thorn in the side of Erdogan's government, already dealing with the spillover of violence from neighboring Syria and increasingly concerned about the prospect of deaths among the hunger strikers which could exacerbate an upsurge in PKK violence.
Ankara has linked the renewed hostilities to the conflict in Syria and accused President Bashar al-Assad of arming the PKK.
Public anger at the rapidly rising death toll is also likely to limit the government's ability to reach a settlement.
More than 40,000 people have been killed in 28 years of fighting between Turkey and the group and there is little sign of violence subsiding. PKK fighters killed five Turkish soldiers in clashes in Hakkari province on Sunday.
Ocalan reportedly told his brother Mehmet when they met on Saturday in Imrali that the hunger strike had achieved its aim, although there was little evidence that the government had accepted the protesters' demands.
As well as an end to Ocalan's isolation and access to lawyers, they had demanded the use of the Kurdish language in education and other institutions.
Erdogan's government has boosted cultural and language rights for Kurds, who make up around 20 percent of Turkey's 75-million strong population, since taking power a decade ago.
However, Kurdish politicians are seeking greater political reform, including steps towards autonomy for the mainly Kurdish southeast, which borders Syria, Iran and Iraq.
Addressing one of the demands, the government has sent to parliament a bill allowing defendants to use Kurdish in court.
But political analyst Emre Uslu said the goals of the PKK and government were irreconcilable.
"The PKK wants to bring peace without laying down its arms. It wants to return to the cities as the guardian of the Kurds," he wrote in Today's Zaman newspaper.
"The peace that the Turkish state talks about is for the PKK to lay down its arms and surrender."
(Additional reporting by Nick Tattersall; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Jon Hemming)