ISTANBUL/DIYARBAKIR (Reuters) - Hundreds of Kurdish militants ended a hunger strike in jails across Turkey on Sunday in response to an appeal from their leader, fuelling hopes a deal had been struck that could revive talks to end a decades-old conflict.
Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan called on his supporters to end their protest after holding a series of discussions with Turkish MIT intelligence agency officials, according to one media report.
Top MIT officials have held secret meetings with senior PKK representatives in Oslo in recent years and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said in September more talks were possible.
More than 40,000 people have been killed in 28 years of fighting between Turkey and the PKK - designated a terrorist group by Ankara, the United States and the European Union.
Ocalan’s call for an end to the hunger strike, which militants staged to demand an end to his isolation in an island prison south of Istanbul, was announced by his brother on Saturday.
“On the basis of our leader’s call ... we end our protest as of November 18, 2012,” Deniz Kaya, a spokesman for the jailed PKK militants, was quoted as saying in a statement by an association representing the inmates’ families.
The announcement was welcomed by the government, which had been increasingly worried any deaths during the hunger strike might provoke more violence.
“I hope we will not face such protests from now on. Turkey is a democratic country,” Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc was quoted as telling reporters by state-run Anatolian news agency.
“Whatever demands the people have, the government and politicians can air them in parliament,” he added.
A newspaper said on Sunday talks between Ocalan and Turkish intelligence officials over the last two months had paved the way for his appeal to end the protest, which lasted 68 days.
“A delegation went to Imrali on three occasions. A senior MIT official joined one of these visits and Ocalan’s intervention was sought to end the hunger strike,” the liberal daily Radikal said. It did not identify its sources.
Fighting between the PKK and Turkish forces surged over the summer. Ankara has linked the renewed hostilities to the conflict in neighboring Syria and accused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of arming the PKK.
In the latest violence, five Turkish soldiers were killed in clashes with PKK fighters in Hakkari province near the border with Iraq on Sunday, the local governor’s office said. Four PKK militants were killed, two surrendered and one wounded militant was captured.
Ocalan, imprisoned on Imrali island in the Marmara Sea south of Istanbul since his capture in 1999, has significant support among Kurds but is widely reviled by Turks who hold him responsible for the conflict since the PKK took up arms in 1984.
According to justice ministry figures, about 1,700 people had been taking part in the hunger strike. Kurdish politicians said the inmates were now receiving medical treatment.
There was little indication that the demands of the hunger strikes were met.
As well as end to Ocalan’s isolation and access to lawyers, they had demanded greater use of the Kurdish language in schools and other institutions.
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 demands, the government has sent to parliament a bill allowing defendants to use Kurdish in court.
Independent Kurdish MP Aysel Tugluk said the call from Ocalan showed the PKK leader needed to be part of any solution to solve the Kurdish problem.
“The conditions have been set out for solving the Kurdish problem by peaceful means, the government must show its will for a solution,” she told a news conference in Diyarbakir, the largest city in the southeast.
Reporting by Seyhmus Cakan; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Rosalind Russell