Turkey in 'high-risk' strategy to end fighting with Kurds

A month into peace talks with the jailed leader of Kurdish rebels, the Turkish government is using a high-risk double strategy to try to end almost three decades of fighting. Thomas Seibert reports from Istanbul

ISTANBUL // A month into peace talks with the jailed leader of Kurdish rebels, the Turkish government is using a high-risk double strategy that combines unprecedented political steps and military pressure to try to end almost three decades of fighting.

Earlier this week, six fighters of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) were killed in clashes with Turkish security forces in south-eastern Anatolia, according to Agence France-Presse.

Last week, Turkish fighter jets struck more than 50 PKK targets around the rebels' headquarters in northern Iraq.

The clashes came one month after Turkey's intelligence service started peace talks with jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.

The aim of the talks is to negotiate an end to the Kurdish conflict, which has killed around 45,000 people since the PKK took up arms to fight for Kurdish self-rule in 1984.

News reports, neither confirmed nor denied by officials, say that the negotiations on the prison island of Imrali, where Ocalan has been held since his capture in 1999, have produced a framework for a solution. The plan is said to include a ceasefire and disarmament of the rebels.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, told his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) this week that he had no intention of ordering an end to military operations as long as the PKK, branded a terrorist organisation by Turkey and much of the international community, kept fighting.

"We are obliged to give them the necessary answer, it is our responsibility," Mr Erdogan said about the PKK fighters, according to excerpts from the speech posted on the AKP website.

The prime minister also criticised moderate Kurdish politicians for demanding an immediate end of military operations. Mr Erdogan said Kurdish officials failed to take their own initiative and only waited for PKK orders.

"Have you rented out your brains?" he asked, referring to members of the Party for Peace and Democracy (BDP), Turkey's main Kurdish party.

But in an example of his carrot-and-stick approach, Mr Erdogan used to same speech to underline his willingness to seek peace and to offer PKK fighters a chance to withdraw from Turkey without being pursued by the military.

Calling on the PKK to lay down its arms, Mr Erdogan said the rebels would be able to leave Turkish territory in peace.

The current peace talks are the first time ever that a Turkish government has entered into formal negotiations with Ocalan. In an effort to show its sincerity, Mr Erdogan's government this week introduced legislation to parliament that would allow the use of the Kurdish language in Turkish courts.

He also called on French authorities to fully investigate the killing of three Kurdish activists on January 9, seen by Ankara as an expression of internal tensions within the PKK, while the rebels blame the crimes on Turkish security forces.

This week, French prosecutors charged Omer Guney, a 30-year-old Kurd and driver of one of the victims, with the murder of the three women. Mr Guney identified himself as a PKK member, according to prosecutors.

But Murat Karayilan, the de-facto PKK leader since Ocalan's arrest, said his group had nothing to do with Mr Guney. "In our view, the Turkish state is the main suspect," Mr Karayilan told the Kurdish Ozgur Gundem newspaper this week.

The Turkish government says it is confident that the peace talks with Ocalan will go on despite the Paris killings.

Speaking after tens of thousands of Kurds gathered at funeral marches for the three victims in Turkey's Kurdish region in south-eastern Anatolia last week, Besir Atalay, the deputy prime minister coordinating efforts to end the Kurdish conflict, said the peaceful gatherings had strengthened the peace process.

"I see today's atmosphere in society as very positive" for a solution, Mr Atalay said.

Mithat Sancar, a law professor at Ankara University and an expert on the Kurdish issue, said Mr Erdogan's double strategy and harsh rhetoric was part of efforts by all political parties in Turkey to "test the blood pressure" of their own constituencies with regards to the negotiations with Ocalan.

"They want to find out what the grass roots are thinking and to put psychological pressure on the other side at the same time," he said by telephone.

He said every negotiation process had a phase in which the parties involved were testing the waters. But while he did not think this would trigger an immediate breakdown, there were dangers.

"If this goes on for too long, it could pose a risk" for the negotiation process, Mr Sancar said. "It is not an easy process."

But OK Gonensin, a columnist with the daily Vatan newspaper, said Mr Erdogan's double strategy could cause problems.

"I see it as a risk," Mr Gonensin said.

He said Mr Erdogan was talking tough to appease conservative and nationalist voters before local, general and presidential elections next year and in 2015. But, he added, there was a danger that Kurdish politicians might become alienated because of Mr Erdogan's rhetoric. Meanwhile, Kurdish politicians were thinking about their own voter base, he said.

"It will be difficult to find a solution with the approaching elections," Mr Gonensin said.

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