Turkish PM says Kurdish peace moves open to sabotage

"We are going through an extremely sensitive process vulnerable to provocations," Erdogan told a meeting of his ruling AK Party officials in the capital Ankara.

Turkish PM says Kurdish peace moves open to sabotage

World Bulletin/News Desk

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan accused Kurdish politicians of trying to sabotage talks to end a 28-year-old insurrection, lamenting the absence of Turkish flags during a mass rally to mark a ceasefire by Kurdish rebels.

Jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan called on his militants to cease fire and withdraw from Turkey in a letter read to hundreds of thousands in the city of Diyarbakir on Thursday. Kurdish red-yellow-green flags and banners displaying Ocalan's face dominated the crowd.

In line with that call, the militants' top field commander based in northern Iraq, Murat Karayilan, ordered his rebels to halt hostilities against Turkish forces, local media reported on Friday, the most concrete sign yet the rebels were behind their imprisoned leader.

The reports could not be immediately confirmed.

The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) led by Ocalan, imprisoned on an island since 1999, had originally demanded an independent Kurdish state. However, it has moderated its declared demands to political autonomy and broad cultural freedom within Turkey.

Erdogan, taking a big political gamble in pushing talks with Ocalan, must avoid stirring fears among conservatives that any deal with the PKK could lead to the breakup of Turkey.

"We are going through an extremely sensitive process vulnerable to provocations," Erdogan told a meeting of his ruling AK Party officials in the capital Ankara.

"The absence of our star and crescent flag in Diyarbakir was a provocation designed to sabotage the process," he said, accusing organisers of the celebrations of "insincerity".

"Today is the day for unity, togetherness and fraternity."

The Kurdish conflict has killed 40,000 people, opened Turkey to accusations of human rights abuses, undermined its ambitions to play a greater role on the world stage and consigned its southeast to poverty. For its part, the PKK is regarded by the United States, European Union and Turkey as a terrorist group.

The mass rally was organised largely by local Kurdish politicians and officials of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) represented in the national parliament - figures whose co-operation he will need to press the peace process.

BDP co-leader Selahattin Demirtas said Kurds had no problem flying the Turkish flag but were uneasy about it being forced upon them.

"The Turkish flag is the flag of everyone living in this country. However, I think those who are imposing it do not have good intentions. This imposition by racist elements amounts to having to kneel before the flag," Demirtas said.

Erdogan told reporters he aimed to complete the process this year. "That is our target. 2014 will then be a healthy election year," he said.

Demirtas said the withdrawal of fighters could be completed by August if a parliamentary committee was set up to monitor it. The Kurdish armed "struggle", he said, "is 99 percent finished". But the spat over the flag indicated that the path towards peace is unlikely to be trouble-free.

The biggest obstacle to the process could come from within the PKK itself and hawkish Kurds, who may have been disappointed that Ocalan's announcement simply declared the period of armed struggle over without making any concrete demands.

"The Kurds have been fighting for their rights for 30 years and this state of war has brought them a kind of patience, foresight and wisdom. They know better than anyone about being deceived and left in the lurch," said Ezgi Basaran, columnist with the liberal Radikal daily.

Erdogan has already taken considerable risks since he was elected in 2002, breaking taboos deeply rooted in a conservative establishment, not least in the military, by extending cultural and language rights to the country's 15 million Kurds, who make up roughly a fifth of Turkey's population.

It is a risk none of his predecessors dared take.

"(Ocalan) has had to wait for the right conditions, his cadre and for the government to all be aligned," said Ertugrul Kurkcu, a parliamentarian from the pro-Kurdish BDP party.

"He hasn't been sitting still in prison. He has always been preparing himself for this day."

Kurdish expectations include changes to the constitutional definition of citizenship, mother-tongue education from primary school age, the strengthening of local government and a lower threshold for political parties to be represented in parliament.

One of the most contentious could be the question of a general amnesty and freedom for Ocalan, something Erdogan has, for now, ruled out.

Güncelleme Tarihi: 23 Mart 2013, 10:35

Muhammed Öylek