Turks welcome peace offer by Kurdish rebels: Hugh Pope writes from Istanbul on cautious optimism that the end might be in sight for a conflict that has led to 6,000 deaths

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The Independent Online
A PEACE offer by Turkey's Kurdish insurgents has raised the tantalising hope that eight years of bloody struggle that have crippled life in south-eastern Turkey may be entering a final stage.

Ambiguities in the Kurdish proposal, hardline Turkish attitudes and anti-Turkish feelings among Kurds mean the offer cannot bring a sudden end to a conflict that has cost nearly 6,000 lives since 1984. Some Turkish commentators judged the peace offer a gimmick to win over European public opinion before the Kurdish new year's day of Nowruz, the annual 21 March celebration of the first day of spring. Last year nearly 100 Kurdish Nowruz demonstrators were killed by Turkish security forces, and dozens of European human rights activists and parliamentarians are arriving to see what happens this time.

But others saw a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, a hope that, somehow, Turkey's new official view that it is a 'democratic mosaic of peoples' would provide an umbrella for Kurds and Turks to continue centuries of life together.

The Kurdish offer was certainly a telling sign of how far the balance of forces has changed in the past year. Turkey is now on top of the fight against the 3,000-5,000-strong Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) rebel army and the PKK's struggle for an independent Marxist state, first for Turkey's 12 million Kurds and then about 12 million other Kurds in Iran, Iraq and Syria.

Last October, Turkish troops, fighting alongside more conservative Iraqi-Kurdish insurgents, first drove PKK forces out of their bases along the Turkish-Iraqi border; then they staged a winter of merciless arrests, repression and air strikes inside Turkey; now they are being helped by a change of heart by neighbouring Syria, once the main protector of the rebel army.

The PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, still lives in Syria. But he may have had to move out of Damascus and must be feeling uneasy. Syria closed down the PKK's training camp in Lebanon's Bekaa valley in September and is now honouring regional security agreements to inform Turkey about extremist groups such as the PKK.

According to a version of Mr Ocalan's offer relayed to Turkey last week by the Iraqi-Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, Mr Ocalan wants a ceasefire, has dropped demands for a separate Kurdish state and backs indirect talks on a democratic political solution.

Mr Talabani's action was purely his own initiative, 'his duty as a Kurd', according to his representative in Ankara. Mr Talabani usually calls Mr Ocalan a megalomaniac, and even while forwarding the proposal he stressed that it was not clear if Mr Ocalan's offer could be believed. But Iraqi Kurds, whose besieged federal state is largely dependent on Ankara's goodwill, would certainly benefit from any resolution of the Kurdish conflict in Turkey.

Turkey would also rejoice if its biggest domestic problem could be solved. Newspapers have cleared their front pages for the story, some telling readers in huge headlines that the PKK was laying down its arms. But the response from the government led by the Prime Minister, Suleyman Demirel, was cautious and the Turkish military may still not want peace talks with a group that they see only as terrorists.

'There is news, but no action. Let's wait and see what he (Ocalan) has got to say,' Mr Demirel said, later making clear that 'this is not something that Turkey will brush aside with the back of its hand'.

A spokesman for Mr Ocalan said the PKK leader had simply repeated standing offers for a ceasefire and talks. 'We want to end the fighting. If Turkey wants to stop the war, it should say so clearly. Our approach will be measured against that. If there is such an answer, very seriously we can make steps towards a new period,' the spokesman said.

One fundamental unresolved question is whether Turkey is ready to seize this moment of Kurdish weakness to accelerate a painfully slow liberalisation of Kurdish cultural rights since 1990 in order to end a brutal, century- long cycle of Kurdish rebellions and repressions.

The PKK may be losing ground, but Ankara may soon face a situation similar to that of Israel, where the old-style Palestinian enemy, the PLO, has been replaced by the newer, more radical Hamas. Looming on the Turkish horizon are the radical fundamentalists of the Kurdish Hizbollah. The PKK has also not been completely crushed: yesterday it killed another five soldiers in an ambush.