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Turkish Kurds Declare Cease-Fire

The rebels' truce is to last a month and stems from a conciliatory speech by the prime minister. The military is unlikely to reciprocate.

August 20, 2005|Amberin Zaman | Special to The Times

ANKARA, Turkey — Kurdish rebels fighting for autonomy in this nation's impoverished southeastern region announced a one-month cease-fire Friday.

A top commander of the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, confirmed what he called a "suspension of hostilities" but warned that the guerrillas would defend themselves if attacked.

In a telephone interview from the PKK headquarters in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, Turkey's neighbor to the south, rebel commander Murat Karayilan said the decision was prompted by "recent positive statements" made by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

"We feel a new opportunity has been created by the prime minister," Karayilan said, "and that there is a real chance for peace."

The rebel leader was referring to a speech delivered by Erdogan last week in Diyarbakir, the largest city in Turkey's mostly Kurdish southeast. In it, Erdogan pledged to resolve his government's conflict with the minority Kurds through greater democracy rather than purely military means.

Some analysts say the prime minister's comments were aimed at winning favor with both the Kurds and the European Union, which Turkey hopes to join. The EU has pressed the government to show improvement in human rights and its treatment of minorities.

Karayilan, who is on Turkey's list of most wanted militants, said that if the government fulfilled the EU criteria for membership, that would go a long way toward satisfying the Kurds' demands for greater political and cultural freedom.

But he added that the cease-fire announced Friday would be extended beyond a month only if Turkey met certain conditions. Topmost among them, he said, is ending the solitary confinement of imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan and halting all military operations against the rebels.

There are few signs the government will respond positively to the PKK's overture.

"We do not respond to terrorists," said a senior official who asked not to be identified. Turkey has pledged to keep up its military drive against the rebels until all either surrender or are killed.

Ocalan, who was sentenced to death for treason after his capture in 1999, is the sole inmate of an island prison off the coast of Istanbul. His sentence was commuted to life in prison when Turkey abolished capital punishment as part of its effort to gain EU membership.

During his trial, Ocalan renounced demands for independence, saying the Kurds would settle for cultural autonomy, a position reiterated by Karayilan on Friday. Ocalan also ordered his forces to withdraw to mountain strongholds in northern Iraq.

The PKK called off the truce last year over what it said was the government's failure to negotiate a lasting peace.

In recent months, the group has planted land mines on roads used by the military and blown up trains. At least five tourists, including a Briton and an Irish teenage girl, were killed last month when suspected militants detonated a bomb on a bus in the Aegean resort of Kusadasi.

The attacks have drawn sharp criticism from Washington and the EU, both of which label the PKK a terrorist group.

Karayilan insisted Friday that his forces had not targeted civilians. He blamed the recent attack on a splinter group called the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, though Western terrorism experts say the Falcons are the PKK's recently formed urban guerrilla arm.

"They broke away from us some time ago and are completely out of our control," Karayilan said.

Meanwhile, he acknowledged that the PKK had been involved in clashes with security forces in neighboring Iran and Syria, but he denied widespread accusations in the region that the rebels were acting under orders from Washington. Iran and Syria have sizable Kurdish minorities, and Iranian officials have accused the U.S. of masterminding attacks by the PKK.

The escalation in the conflict in Turkey, which has claimed nearly 40,000 lives since the rebels launched their insurgency two decades ago, has stoked nationalist anger. Opposition and military leaders have accused Erdogan of being soft on terrorism.

"The prime minister has made a mockery of all past sacrifices made in the battle against terrorism," Armagan Kuloglu, a retired Turkish air force general and a security analyst at the Ankara-based Center for Eurasian Strategic Studies, said of Erdogan's conciliatory remarks.

"He has made a mistake and will no doubt be told so [by members of the military] during the next meeting of the National Security Council," Kuloglu said in a telephone interview.

The council, where Turkish generals long dictated national policy until the panel's powers were trimmed in line with EU reforms, is scheduled to convene Tuesday.

Undeterred by the criticism, Erdogan this week urged Turkey's state-run-media watchdog to ease restrictions on regional television and radio channels that want to broadcast in the previously banned Kurdish language.

"He seems to be braver than his predecessors," Karayilan said.

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