Talks bring Turkey 'closer to peace'

While a lasting suspension of attacks is seen as a first step, official says both sides are exploring possible ways to permanently end the conflict.

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ISTANBUL // Hopes for an end to the violence in the Kurdish region of Turkey are rising amid unprecedented peace talks involving state officials, Kurdish politicians and even the jailed Kurdish rebel leader.

"We are closer to peace," Aysel Tugluk, a prominent Kurdish politician and lawyer, said on Monday after her return from a day of talks with Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK. The rebel group has been fighting for Kurdish self-rule since 1984. Ocalan is serving a life sentence on the prison island of Imrali in the Sea of Marmara, south of Istanbul.

The fact that the PKK leader is part of efforts to find peace is a sign of fundamental changes on both sides of the Kurdish conflict, observers say. There is strong public demand for an end to the violence and a willingness on the political level to tackle the problem once and for all, they say. At the same time, the PKK has come under pressure to rethink its position. "It is a process that started 10 years ago with the democratic reforms in the framework of Turkey's EU membership bid," Ihsan Bal, an expert on the PKK at the International Strategic Research Organisation, a think tank in Ankara, said yesterday. In the more democratic Turkey of today, demands by Kurds for more rights had been partly met.

"The underlying reasons for the use of violence are being eroded. We can talk about things like autonomy now." The visit by Mrs Tugluk to Imrali island was the latest in a series of efforts to get the PKK to extend its current ceasefire. The rebels had escalated their attacks this summer, but called the ceasefire last month for Ramadan. The truce was originally scheduled to end on September 20, but the PKK extended it to this week in anticipation of Mrs Tugluk's meeting with Ocalan.

There have been several Turkish media reports that the PKK has started to pull back its fighters from Turkey to northern Iraq, where the rebels have their headquarters. The PKK has not confirmed any withdrawal nor a further extension of the ceasefire. While a lasting suspension of the attacks is seen as a first step, Mrs Tugluk, Kurdish activists as well as state officials have been trying to explore possible ways to permanently resolve the Kurdish conflict. The campaign has cost tens of thousands of lives and has devastated parts of Turkey's south-eastern Anatolia.

Last week, leading members of the Party for Peace and Democracy, or BDP, Turkey's biggest Kurdish party, met top government officials in Ankara. On Imrali, Ocalan has been negotiating with officials from the MIT, Turkey's intelligence agency. The PKK leader has been quoted as saying that the talks, reportedly focusing on conditions for a permanent disarmament of the rebels in northern Iraq, were proceeding well.

For its part, Ankara disclosed only recently that it was talking to Ocalan, long seen as Turkey's public enemy number one. "Abdullah Ocalan said he was determined to solve the Kurdish problem within a united Turkey in a peaceful and democratic manner," Mrs Tugluk said after her meeting with the PKK leader. The PKK has dropped its original aim of creating an independent Kurdish state on Turkish territory. Now the demands by the rebels concentrate on wider autonomy for Kurds, more rights such as Kurdish-language courses in state schools and a release of Ocalan.

Hakan Fidan, the head of the MIT, held talks in Washington last week, and on Monday he met Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, in Ankara. Mr Fidan is expected to travel to Erbil in northern Iraq next weekend for talks with the leadership of the Kurdish autonomous region. Besir Atalay, Turkey's interior minister, who is in charge of the government's initiative to solve the Kurdish problem, held talks with Mesut Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan regional government in northern Iraq, last weekend in Erbil.

The aim of both Mr Fidan and Mr Atalay in their separate talks with the Kurdish government is to explore ways a disarmament of the PKK could be facilitated, Turkish media reports said. At the same time, Ankara is keeping the military option open. Cemil Cicek, a deputy prime minister, said the government would ask parliament to extend a mandate for the military to bomb suspected PKK camps in northern Iraq or send troops into the neighbouring country to fight the rebels there.

The Turkish judiciary is also sticking to its strict line against Kurdish activists. Yesterday, a court sentenced Selahattin Demirtas, the BDP leader, to 10 months in prison for spreading PKK propaganda. Although Mr Demirtas will probably not have to serve the sentence because of his immunity as a parliamentary deputy, the verdict is a sign that alleged ties to the rebels remain a sensitive subject despite contacts between the state and Ocalan. In addition, hopes for an end of the violence have been dashed before.

Overall, prospects for a solution seem good, both inside and outside Turkey, Mr Bal said. For example, the Kurds in northern Iraq were trying to lay the foundations for good relations with the big neighbour Turkey for the new era starting with the US withdrawal, Mr Bal added. "The PKK is no longer as safe [in northern Iraq] as it has been." Hasan Cemal, a journalist, told the NTV news channel that "many factors are coming together".

He added, "It looks like this has reached the point of no return." Mr Bal would not go that far. While current developments could be seen as a "turning point", he said much would depend on whether the government and the PKK would draw the right conclusions. He said radical forces inside the PKK could try to derail the peace process.