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Jailed Kurdish militant exhorts SDF to avoid conflict in Syria

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Jailed Kurdish militant leader Abdullah Ocalan issued a rare statement on Monday calling on the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces to resolve problems in Syria without conflict.

FILE PHOTO: Pro-Kurd protesters hold flags with portraits of jailed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan as they take part in a demonstration in support to him in Strasbourg, France, February 16, 2019. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler/File Photo

Ocalan, founder and leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which has waged an insurgency in southeast Turkey since the mid-1980s, is revered by many Kurdish fighters who form the core of the U.S.-backed SDF.

Ankara says Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters spearheading the SDF are part of the PKK, which is designated a terrorist organisation by the United States and European Union. Turkey has waged two military incursions in northern Syria against the YPG.

The statement from Ocalan, and three other senior PKK members, was read by lawyers who said they were allowed to meet him in a Turkish prison on Thursday for the first time since 2011.

“We believe that, within the scope of the SDF, problems in Syria should be aimed to be solved by staying away from a culture of conflict, with constitutional assurances given within the framework of Syria’s territorial integrity,” it said.

It also said Turkish sensitivities should be taken into consideration in any work towards a solution in Syria.

The U.S.-armed SDF has driven out Islamic State fighters from a large part of northeast Syria and controls hundreds of kilometres of border territory with Turkey.

It was not clear what specific potential conflict Ocalan was advising the SDF to avoid in Syria’s eight-year civil war, but he could have been referring to Turkish or Syrian government forces.


Ocalan, who has been in jail for 20 years, played a significant role in peace talks between Turkish authorities and the PKK which broke down in 2015.

Ocalan also said supporters holding hunger strikes to protest against his isolation should not risk their health or lives.

The pro-Kurdish Democratic Peoples’ Party (HDP) say some 3,000 people, mostly prison inmates, have joined a hunger strike started by parliamentarian Leyla Guven to protest his isolation, despite authorities allowing a visit by his brother in January.

“Along with respecting the resistance of our friends inside and outside of prisons, we would like to point out that they should not carry it to a point that will endanger their health and have it end in death,” Ocalan’s statement said.

Eight of those on hunger strike domestically and abroad have committed suicide to draw attention to the cause, the HDP said.

In the statement, Ocalan referred to a letter he wrote to mark Kurdish Newroz new year celebrations in 2013, when the Turkish government and PKK were holding peace talks. In the letter, he had called for an end to armed conflict and for solutions through politics.

“Our stance... is determined to continue the style of expression in the 2013 Newroz letter by deepening and clarifying it,” he said. “For us, an honourable peace and democratic politics is essential for a solution.”

Following the collapse of the ceasefire in 2015, Turkey’s southeast saw some of the worst violence in years. In total, some 40,000 people have been killed since the PKK launched its insurgency in 1984.

Editing by Dominic Evans and Andrew Cawthorne