Jailed PKK Leader Calls on Movement to Drop Arms

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Members of Peshmerga Forces leave their base to reach Erbil International Airport in Erbil city of Iraq to go to the Kobane town of Syria on February 27, 2015. The Kurdish regional government in Iraq is set to send a fourth group of Peshmerga Forces sent to Kobane. Anadolu/Hamit Hüseyin

Published Sunday, March 1, 2015

The jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) on Saturday urged the separatists to take a "historic" decision to lay down their arms, a key step in efforts to end Turkey's long-running Kurdish insurgency.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan welcomed the call as "very, very important" but cautioned that earlier calls made by the Kurdish rebels had failed.

Reading a statement live on television, Sirri Sureyya Onder, a lawmaker from the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), relayed a message from Abdullah Ocalan calling on the Kurdish rebels to hold a congress on disarmament in the spring.

"We are in the process of ending the 30-year of conflict in the form of a perpetual peace, and our primary goal is to reach a democratic solution," Onder quoted Ocalan as saying in a joint press conference with Deputy Prime Minister Yalcin Akdogan.

"I'm calling on the PKK to hold an extraordinary congress in the spring months to take the strategic and historic decision on disarmament," Ocalan's message said. "This is a historic call to replace armed struggle with democratic politics."

Onder, who spoke alongside Akdogan and Interior Minister Efkan Ala following a brief meeting with the two ministers in Istanbul, said the both sides were "closer than ever to peace."

The press conference was of significance because it was the first time a message by Ocalan was read out in the presence of Turkish government officials.

Akdogan emphasized the importance of a ceasefire and said: "We have reached an important and historical phase in the peace process... Silencing arms will contribute to the development of democracy.”

Reactions to Ocalan’s statement

Ocalan's statement came after an HDP delegation met with PKK rebels for talks at their base in the Kandil Mountains in Iraq on February 23 and met Ocalan himself on his prison island of Imrali on the Marmara Sea on Friday.

The PKK's units have joined other Kurds to battle Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Kurdish victories, especially in the Syrian town of Kobane, have raised worries in Ankara about an emboldened PKK at the bargaining table.

Less than two weeks ago, the PKK warned the government negotiations could break down unless it took concrete steps to further the peace process.

The statement also listed 10 measures that the government must agree to ensure peace, including drafting a new constitution.

The pro-Erdogan ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is seeking support from Turkey's estimated 15 million Kurds in parliamentary elections in June in order change the constitution in order to replace a charter drawn up by technocrats after a 1980 military coup and to imbue Erdogan's office with more executive powers.

"Today, a critical point has been reached in Turkey's democratization, the expansion of freedoms and for lasting peace," said HDP chairman Selahattin Demirtas.

Demirtas said that the congress would be held after a consensus on the measures cited in the statement was reached but did not make clear who would attend the conference nor whether it would bring about an immediate disarmament.

"Of course calls are good, but what matters is the implementation. How much will implementation be reflected in the field ahead of an election?" Erdogan told a news conference in Istanbul ahead of an official visit to Saudi Arabia.

"I hope (they) will stand behind these statements," he said.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu also hailed the statement as the start of a new phase, saying the language of violence would now "cease to exist."

A spokesperson for EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini welcomed Ocalan's comments as "a positive step forward in the peace process," urging all parties to "seize the opportunity" and promising political and practical support .

In 2013, Ocalan called for a "historic" ceasefire after months of secret negotiations with the Turkish government aimed at ending a conflict that has killed more than 40,000 people since 1984. But peace talks stalled in September 2013, when the insurgents said they were suspending their pullout from Turkish soil after accusing Ankara of failing to deliver on promised reforms.

Government officials have recently stepped up efforts to restart talks with the Kurds and have met with their representatives in the hope of reaching a disarmament deal by the Kurdish New Year in March.

The new efforts come against the backdrop of a contentious security bill — currently being debated in parliament — that boosts police powers to crack down on protest.

If passed, the bill, which was introduced after deadly pro-Kurdish protests in October, risks jeopardizing the fragile peace process with the PKK, which is listed as a terror organization by Turkey and its western allies.

(AFP, Reuters, Al-Akhbar)

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