By Daren Butler | Reuters – 3 hours ago
ISTANBUL (Reuters) – The Turkish government approved on Thursday a list of pro-Kurdish politicians to visit jailed militant leader Abdullah Ocalan, a justice ministry official said, a long-awaited step to advance peace talks on ending a 28-year-old insurgency.
Turkey launched tentative negotiations with Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Ocalan in his jail on Imrali island near Istanbul in October, drawing up a framework to end a conflict which has killed more than 40,000 people.
But there has been little sign of progress since two Kurdish politicians met Ocalan on January 3 to discuss ways to end violence which has destabilized Turkey and stunted development of the mainly Kurdish southeast since the PKK took up arms in 1984.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has made clear that prominent Kurdish deputies who were filmed embracing militants would be barred from meeting the head of the PKK, deemed a terrorist group by Turkey, the European Union and the United States.
Bowing to that pressure, parliament’s pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) said it proposed three MPs, rather than the party leaders they had initially intended, “so that the process does not become deadlocked”.
Explaining its move, the BDP said it was acting in response to an appeal from the PKK leader, stressing Ocalan had voiced dissatisfaction with the government’s stance.
“We found Mr. Ocalan’s attitude, aimed at resolving the problem and overcoming obstacles, to be extremely significant and valuable,” BDP co-leaders Selahattin Demirtas and Gultan Kisanak said in a joint statement.
The ministry official told Reuters the delegation, due to visit Ocalan on Saturday, consisted of non-Kurdish leftist film-maker Sirri Sureyya Onder, Altan Tan, who has an Islamist background, and Pervin Buldan, a long-time Kurdish female activist – names which the BDP said Ocalan himself had suggested.
Onder and Tan are both members of the cross-party parliamentary commission attempting to draft a new constitution and their selection suggested planned reforms of the charter could feature in the peace negotiations.
Cynics see Ankara’s talks with Ocalan as part of a strategy to win Kurdish support for constitutional changes, including an executive presidency which Erdogan is believed to covet.
Erdogan has pushed through reforms increasing Kurdish cultural rights during his decade in power but Kurdish politicians have demanded decentralization, Kurdish language education and greater equality.
There are expectations that Ocalan may call for a ceasefire via the Kurdish delegation, as part of a process envisaging a PKK withdrawal from Turkey and ultimate disarmament in exchange for reforms boosting rights of the country’s Kurdish minority.
Asked if a ceasefire may be announced, Onder said: “It would be speculative to say that now, but we hope that a positive result will come out of this.”
“I think something concrete may come out of this visit. We will tell him the people of Turkey are behind the peace process. We will convey to him both the trust and apprehensions that Kurds feel about this process,” Onder told Reuters.
Optimism in Turkey about the process has been tempered in recent weeks by the delay in the visit, nationalist protests against a BDP trip to the Black Sea region and military attacks on PKK bases across the border in Iraq.
The PKK said Turkish warplanes overnight bombed a village in northern Iraq’s Qandil mountains, where several thousand of their militants are based, damaging vineyards and gardens. They have reported several such attacks in recent days, but the Turkish general staff has not commented.
Erdogan has said publicly that the fight against the militants would continue until they lay down their weapons. The PKK has in the past periodically announced unilateral ceasefires, which have been ignored by the Turkish armed forces.
(Additional reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley and Orhan Coskun; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Tom Pfeiffer)