ISTANBUL/DIYARBAKIR (Reuters) - Jailed Kurdish militant leader Abdullah Ocalan called for an end to a hunger strike by hundreds of his supporters in prisons across Turkey on Saturday, raising hopes of a push to end a decades-old conflict.
The hunger strike by at least 1,700 people to demand an end to Ocalan’s isolation is in its 67th day and doctors have said prisoners could soon die. The protest has posed a growing challenge to Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and risked fuelling tension in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast.
“Today I went to see my brother Abdullah Ocalan face-to-face in Imrali prison,” Ocalan’s brother Mehmet said in a statement. “He wants me to share immediately with the public his call about the hunger strikes .... This action has achieved its goal. Without any hesitation, they should end the hunger strike.”
Ocalan, leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has fought for Kurdish autonomy for almost three decades, has been imprisoned on the small island of Imrali in the Marmara Sea since his capture in 1999.
He has significant support among Kurds but is widely reviled by Turks who hold him responsible for the deaths of over 40,000 people since the PKK - designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union - took up arms.
The sudden announcement from Ocalan suggested a deal had been struck to end a protest that was becoming a thorn in the side of the government, which already has to cope with the spillover of the crisis in neighbouring Syria.
Turkish intelligence officials have had contact with senior figures from the PKK in the past few years, including secret talks in Oslo in 2010 and meetings on Imrali, and Erdogan said in September further talks were a possibility.
The pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), several of whose members joined the hunger strike, said its deputies in the city of Diyarbakir - the regional center of the heavily Kurdish southeast - would communicate Ocalan’s call to prisoners there.
“We hope this call will pave the way for the next process, which is to end (Ocalan‘s) isolation ... The Kurdish problem should be resolved by dialogue and deliberation,” BDP leader Selahattin Demirtas told reporters.
Turkish media said several hundred hunger strikers in the city of Izmir on the Aegean coast had ended their protest and were being examined by health workers. Strikers in some other areas were considering Ocalan’s call and were expected to make a statement on Sunday, Kurdish politicians said.
“Our client is someone who has a serious influence over the Kurds and so we think any call by him to end this protest action could be influential,” Mazlum Dinc, one of Ocalan’s lawyers, told Reuters before the statement from his brother was released.
The hunger strikers have demanded an end to Ocalan’s isolation, including access to lawyers, as well as greater Kurdish language rights for Kurds in Turkey, who make up around one fifth of the population.
Ocalan’s solitary confinement was eased in 2009 when five more inmates were brought to the island. His current situation is unclear but lawyers say he has no access to a telephone or television and his newspapers are censored.
The lawyers say the authorities have declined their requests to visit Ocalan 134 times since they last saw him more on July 27, 2011, usually blaming bad weather or breakdowns on the boat that would ferry them to Imrali.
Fighting between the PKK and Turkish forces surged over the summer. Ankara linked the renewed hostilities to the conflict in Syria. Turkey has accused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of arming the PKK.
Erdogan’s government has boosted Kurdish cultural and language rights since taking power a decade ago. But Kurdish politicians are seeking greater political reform, including steps towards autonomy for mainly Kurdish southeastern Turkey.
Addressing one of the protesters’ demands, the government has submitted to parliament a bill allowing defendants to use Kurdish in their court testimony. But Kurdish politicians say this alone would not be sufficient to end the hunger strike.
“The most significant demands of the hunger strikers concern Ocalan,” one of Ocalan’s lawyers, Rezan Sarica, told Reuters.
A similar protest more than a decade ago ended with dozens of deaths - both as a result of fasting and a security operation to end the strike.
The justice ministry says around 1,700 people are taking part and doctors are regularly inspecting them, although some Kurdish officials have put the number higher. Turkey’s largest medical association warned of fatalities after around 60 days.
Additional reporting by Seltem Iyigun; Writing by Nick Tattersall; editing by Jason Webb