Jailed Kurdish rebel chief Abdullah Ocalan called Thursday for an immediate cease-fire and for thousands of his fighters to withdraw from Turkish territory, a major step toward ending one of the world’s bloodiest insurgencies.
In a message read by pro-Kurdish legislators in the Kurdish and Turkish languages, leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Ocalan said: “we have reached the point where the guns must be silenced and where ideas must speak. A new era has started, where it is politics, not guns, which is at the forefront.”
“We have reached the stage where our armed elements need to retreat beyond the border,” Ocalan’s message continued.
The announcement, which Ocalan in a previous letter said would be “historic,” has been timed to coincide with the Kurdish New Year, or Newroz, that will see hundreds of thousands gather for celebrations in the Kurdish-majority city of Diyarbakir.
The ceasefire call would cap months of clandestine peace talks between Turkey’s spy agency and the state’s former public enemy number one Ocalan, who has been serving a life sentence for treason and separatism on Imrali island off Istanbul since 1999.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Ocalan both appear to have staked their political futures on the renewed push to end the 29-year armed campaign for self-rule that has killed some 45,000 people, mostly Kurds.
Erdogan said he was putting his faith in the peace process “even if it costs me my political career,” in the face of accusations that Ankara was making concessions to Ocalan -- routinely labeled a “terrorist chief” and “baby-killer” by Turks.
A solution to Turkey’s ingrained Kurdish problem could etch Erdogan’s name in history, in much the same way the abolition of slavery enshrined Lincoln’s memory for Americans a century ago, wrote Murat Yetkin, editor-in-chief of the Hurriyet Daily News.
“If he can do this and convince people that a political solution to Kurdish problem is on track and the conflict is over, yes, there is a chance that Erdogan can be the Lincoln of Turkey,” he wrote in February.
Ocalan -- known as “Apo” or uncle to Kurds -- has said he wants peace for the greater good of his people.
“Consider Apo dead if this process fails. I am simply out,” the burly 64-year-old was quoted as saying in a rare prison meeting with Kurdish lawmakers last month.
Ocalan’s expected ceasefire is likely to be in return for wider constitutional recognition and language rights for Turkey’s up to 15 million Kurds.
The peace plan is expected to be the result of written consultations between Ocalan, pro-Kurdish lawmakers and PKK bodies in Europe and northern Iraq, under the close monitoring of Turkish agents.
Fragile road ahead
Talks with the PKK, considered a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union as well as Turkey, were long unthinkable to most Turks. But Erdogan has promoted the contact since a worsening of the conflict brought rising guerrilla violence and large-scale arrests of Kurdish activists.
Growing Kurdish assertiveness in neighboring northern Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region and in war-torn Syria have only added to the sense of urgency.
Abdullah Demirbas, a district mayor in Diyarbakir, said there were likely to be more attempts to sabotage the process ahead.
“There are deep forces who want war and they are pervasive. They feed off blood,” he told Reuters.
“The PKK, Ocalan and the government must be brave... There is massive social support for this process. There is hope, albeit restrained. That stems from disappointments in the past.”
Demirbas said this was a last chance for peace.
“The next generation is like a storm. It is more radical. It has never known peace between Kurds and Turks. Now you can still convince many of them, we can still win them over. But if we lose them this time, they will never listen to us again.”
Kurdish lawmakers say Ocalan might ask for commissions to be established to properly monitor the ceasefire, and call for safe passage for fighters wishing to leave Turkey.
Under Erdogan, in power since 2002, the Kurdish minority has been granted more language rights in recent years, including the establishment of a Kurdish-language television channel.