ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Jailed Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan said he would make a “historic” appeal on Thursday, raising expectations of a ceasefire in a 28-year conflict that has riven Turkey, killing some 40,000 people.
His statement, conveyed from his prison cell via a Kurdish politician, may cement peace talks with the government that have been progressing tentatively since October.
A ceasefire call, coinciding with the Kurdish new year, could be accompanied by a command to his Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants to withdraw to bases in northern Iraq where the PKK says it keeps about half of its 7,000 fighters.
“The statement I am preparing will be a historic call. It will contain satisfying information on the military and political dimensions of a solution,” said Ocalan, who was captured by Turkish special forces in Kenya 14 years ago and long vilified as a murderer and “baby killer” in Turkish media.
“We want to solve the arms problem rapidly and without losing time or another life,” Ocalan said in asking for the support of parliament and political parties to achieve peace in the Kurds’ fight for more autonomy.
The PKK is considered a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union as well as Turkey. But Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has promoted the contacts since a worsening of the conflict brought rising guerrilla violence and large-scale arrests of Kurdish activists.
Truces have been agreed and failed before in the war, but in this process Ocalan and a Turkish prime minister have openly spoken of talks on a comprehensive settlement.
There was no immediate comment on his statement from the government, which says it seeks peace but will continue to counter PKK operations until it lays down its arms.
Turkey has launched air raids and ground operations against PKK bases, and gives smaller numbers for the rebels’ strength.
Before the statement was delivered, Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin said he expected a withdrawal of PKK guerrillas to bases in northern Iraq to be completed by the end of 2013, according to Milliyet newspaper.
Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) leader Selahattin Demirtas, a member of parliament, conveyed Ocalan’s statement on his return to Istanbul on Monday from a visit to his prison on the island of Imrali.
Ocalan was initially sentenced to be hanged for treason on Imrali, but this was commuted to life imprisonment. “Apo”, as he is known to his allies, had been kept largely in isolation since then with no contact with his field commanders.
He was not allowed a television until a few months ago.
In Diyarbakir, the largest city in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast, many have welcomed the moves as the best chance yet to end a conflict that has defied all previous attempts at a resolution.
“Ocalan’s statement is important for stopping the bloodshed,” 42-year-old Hanefi Can said. “It marks a new day. People can stop dying now.”
Hasan Ceylan, a 52-year-old businessman, said: “Ocalan’s remarks are historic. We’ve entered a very important process, and there is no turning back.”
Kurds account for some 20 percent of Turkey’s 76 million population but are scattered through western Turkey as well as the southeast.
The cost of the conflict is not lost on anyone, whatever their background.
Images of soldiers’ coffins returning home have stirred deep emotions. However, allegations of human rights abuses by security forces in the southeast have damaged Turkey’s image in the EU Ankara seeks to join.
Investment in the southeast has slumped and poverty increased, putting a strain, beyond the human losses, on the Turkish economy as a whole.
The PKK had originally demanded full independence for a Kurdish state in southeastern Turkey, but has moderated its goals to broader political and cultural autonomy.
In an initial confidence-boosting step, the PKK last week released eight Turkish captives which it had been holding at its bases in northern Iraq for up to two years.
Imrali island has long associations with the more turbulent chapters in Turkey’s history. After a military coup in 1960, prime minister Adnan Menderes and two other senior ministers were hanged there.
Additional reporting by Seyhmus Cakan in Diyarbakir, Gulsen Solaker in Ankara and Ayla Jean Yackley in Istanbul; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Alison Williams