Pro-Kurdish party calls for autonomy in SE Turkey

ANKARA, Nov 8 (Reuters) - Turkey's leading pro-Kurdish party called on the government on Thursday to grant autonomy to the mainly Kurdish southeast as a solution to the violence that has plagued the impoverished region for more than two decades.

Nearly 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict since the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) guerrillas took up arms to fight for a Kurdish homeland in southeastern Turkey.

Tensions have escalated in recent weeks and Turkey has sent tens of thousands of troops to the border region with Iraq where many PKK rebels operate.

"A democratic and federal system is the most suitable solution (to Turkey's Kurdish problem)," Aysel Tugluk, an influential Democratic Society Party (DTP) lawmaker, told a party convention in Ankara.

The party approved a declaration calling for autonomy for Kurds in the southeast, a move expected to raise tensions further. Calling for greater autonomy for the Kurds remains a highly contentious issue in Turkey and has led to prosecutions.

The DTP won 20 seats in elections in July, the first time supporters of more rights for the large ethnic Kurdish minority have been represented in parliament for more than a decade.

Turkey's troops on the border are in place to cross into northern Iraq where some 3,000 PKK guerrillas are based.

The DTP said a military offensive, approved by Turkey's parliament, was no solution to the long-running problem.

"Everyone knows very well that the solution to the Kurdish problem lies in democratic moves rather than (military) operations," Tugluk said.

DTP offices have been attacked by ultra-nationalist groups in the past few weeks and calls for the party to denounce the PKK as a terrorist organisation have intensified.

Many Turks remain deeply suspicious of the DTP and believe it is just a mouthpiece of the PKK. The DTP rejects any ties to the PKK, which is considered a terrorist organisation by the United States, Turkey and the European Union.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's government, which is seeking European Union membership, has eased some curbs on Kurdish language and culture, but many Kurds say this is not enough.

"The most urgent issue that needs to be solved by politics is the Kurdish problem," said Nurettin Demirtas, who is expected to be appointed the DTP's new chairman later on Thursday.

The DTP wants the government to ease restrictions on the Kurdish language further, give Kurds the choice about whether to learn Turkish and give them other political and cultural rights. (Reporting by Evren Mesci; Writing by Selcuk Gokoluk; Editing by Robert Woodward)