A historic truce between Turkey and separatist Kurdish rebels was announced today, signalling a possible end to a 30-year conflict that has claimed more than 40,000 lives.
Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), called for the rebel group’s fighters to withdraw from Turkey – where they have fought a guerrilla campaign against the state since 1984.
In a written statement read out to a crowd of hundreds of thousands celebrating Kurdish New Year in the city of Diyarbakir in south-eastern Turkey, Öcalan said it was “time for the guns to go silent.”
“A new phase in our struggle is beginning. Now a door is opening to a phase where we are moving from armed resistance to an era of democratic political struggle,” he said in the statement read to a sea of Kurdish flags, before calling for the estimated 3,500 PKK fighters currently within Turkey to withdraw to their bases in Northern Iraq.
Turkey is home to some 15 million Kurds who have long sought an independent state in the Kurdish majority areas that cover eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, north-western Iran and northern Syria. Turkey has been accused of committing human rights abuses against the minority population, a persistent accusation that has stalled the country’s entry to the European Union. In recent years, the PKK’s demands have softened to calls for greater autonomy, the right to education in their own language and better conditions for Öcalan, who is kept largely in isolation.
Turkish authorities have been negotiating with Öcalan since October last year in an effort to find a solution to the decades-old conflict. Although the PKK — labelled a terrorist organisation by the US and the EU — have announced unilateral ceasefires in the past, these were largely ignored by the state. Greater hopes are placed on today’s announcement, however, because it came as the result of indirect talks between Öcalan and Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Mr Erdogan called the announcement a “positive development” today, but said the important part would be its implementation. “We want to see how Öcalan’s declarations will be met as soon as possible,” he said, adding that military operations against the group would stop if it withdrew from Turkey.
Öcalan, who has been detained by Turkish authorities on the prison island of Imrali for almost 14 years, is viewed as the unquestioned leader of the PKK – the Kurdish armed movement he founded in 1978. He has maintained his control over the organisation from his prison cell, issuing orders and statements that are carried out by the organisation on the ground. His influence was clear to see in November last year when he called for an end to a hunger strike being carried out by dozens of Kurdish activists. The order was obeyed immediately.
Among the throngs that lined the streets Diyarbakir, the largest Kurdish city in Turkey, there was both hope and scepticism.
“They have made promises before but didn’t keep them,” said 41-year-old Mizgin Candemir, referring to the Turkish government’s previous efforts at reaching a peace. “So I need concrete steps first before I believe Erdogan is serious about this.”
Sitting in a large field behind the stage upon which Öcalan’s words were read, Mehmet Ozan, 35, said: “I want the freedom to be able to teach Kurdish in schools. But the most important thing is to reach peace. No more bloodshed on both sides of the conflict.”
The military leader of the PKK, Murat Karayilan, said that he ”very strongly“ supported Öcalan’s announcement.
”All of Turkey, Kurdistan and the world must know this: as the PKK movement, we are ready for war and for peace,“ he told the Kurdish Firat news agency.
But there are signs that not everyone will welcome a ceasefire. On the eve of Öcalan’s announcement a number of bombs were detonated the Turkish capital, Ankara. Mr Erdogan blamed on a left-wing group which opposes the talks with the PKK, and promised to push ahead with peace efforts.