BERLIN (Reuters) - Watching thousands of miles away, Kurds in western Europe welcomed jailed rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan’s ceasefire message as a critical step toward ending almost 30 years of conflict in Turkey, but expressed concern over Ankara’s next steps.
With thousands displaced by the violence or having fled on political grounds, many Kurds in Europe have long regarded Ocalan, jailed on a Turkish prison island since 1999, as a symbolic leader.
But Kurdish rebels also have ties to organisations in Europe and, in a sign of their influence, Ocalan asked those affiliates for their input while drafting his message, read out on Thursday to coincide with the Kurdish new year, or Newroz.
“Just as Newroz signifies a new beginning, now in 2013 we have a new start,” Zubeyir Aydar, one of Ocalan’s top representatives in Europe, told Reuters by phone from Brussels.
“Considering our past experiences and what is happening now, we have more grounds for trust than in the past.”
But he said the onus was now on Turkey and Kurds felt concerned about how the state would respond.
He called for Kurdish identity to be recognised in Turkey’s new constitution and laws used by Turkey “to restrict Kurdish activity”, such as a 10 percent threshold for political parties to enter parliament, to be scrapped.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, speaking in the Netherlands, welcomed Ocalan’s ceasefire call but said the real test would be putting it into action. Military operations would stop if the rebel guns fell silent.
Erdogan has taken considerable risks since he was elected in 2002, breaking taboos deeply rooted in a conservative establishment, not least in the military, by extending cultural and language rights to Kurds.
The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), regarded by the United States, European Union and Turkey as a terrorist group, launched its campaign in 1984, demanding an independent Kurdish state in the southeast of Turkey. It has since moderated its demands to political autonomy and broader cultural rights.
Last month Aydar and other executive council members of the Union of Kurdistan Communities (KCK) received a letter from Ocalan outlining his plan. In a seven-page hand written reply they gave suggestions and assured the leader of their loyalty.
Some 240,000 Kurdish expatriates live in France, 200,000 in Britain and around 500,000 in Germany. Germany’s domestic intelligence service estimates there are 13,000 PKK supporters in the country and that donations in a “single figure sum of millions of euros” flowed to the militants.
For many watching in Brussels, London, Paris or Berlin, it was a new experience simply following the live broadcast and seeing Turkish television showing the sea of Kurdish flags and long banned images of the moustachioed Ocalan.
There was overwhelming support and faith in Ocalan, despite uncertainties of what the future may hold.
At Devran Kurdish restaurant in north London, chef Kiro Aga called it a “day of freedom”. “For the Kurdish people in Turkey it’s the day they have waited for; they feel like they have won the war ... Ocalan has always been the Kurdish people’s president and where he leads, they will follow.”
In a cultural centre in Paris there was caution amid recollections of previous ceasefire declarations that have come and gone.
“The Kurds want peace but we will not be fooled. We’ll remain fully mobilised across the border to ensure that Turkey respects its promises on Kurdish rights,” said Berivan Akyol, a translator at the Kurdish Cultural Centre in Paris.
It was in Paris that three female Kurdish activists, including a co-founder of the PKK, were found shot dead at another Kurdish institute in execution-style shootings which many saw as an attempt to derail the peace process.
“We don’t yet know who lay behind these murders. We don’t believe it was the act of one individual. We need to take precautions,” said Aydar.
Provocateurs could still be operating, he added.
Ibrahim Okuduci, the 47-year-old head of Berlin’s Kurdish Centre who fled to Germany 20 years ago after being tortured in Diyarbakir, said respect of Kurds needed to take root in a Turkish state that since its founding had been hostile.
“A recognition of Kurds needs to filter through to every level of society. In this sense it is not about whether we are happy or not today, it is about whether we see that our fight for survival and struggle to exist is fulfilled.”
Additional reporting by Nicholas Vinocur in Paris, Clare Hutchinson in London; Editing by Mark Heinrich
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