Rebel leader expected to declare cease-fire

Associated Press
In this photo taken Sunday, March 17, 2013, Kurds wave banners depicting imprisoned Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan in Istanbul, Turkey. Imprisoned Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan, in a message relayed by Kurdish legislators who visited him on his prison island, said Monday, March 18 that peace talks with Turkey are making "positive progress" and that he plans to make a "historic" announcement to coincide with a Kurdish spring festival. (AP Photo)
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DIYARBAKIR, Turkey (AP) — The imprisoned Kurdish rebel chief was on Thursday expected to issue a long-awaited declaration of a cease-fire in Turkey that would be a major step toward ending one of the world's bloodiest insurgencies.

Kurdish legislators are to read a message from Abdullah Ocalan during a spring festival celebration in the largest city in Turkey's mainly Kurdish southeast.

Hundreds of thousands of people, waving rebel flags or flags emblazoned with Ocalan's picture, packed a square in Diyarbakir early Thursday. Organizers said more than a million people are expected to attend the festivity to hear Ocalan's statement.

Ocalan is expected to declare a truce with immediate effect, as well as the gradual withdrawal of fighters from Turkish territory — offering hope of ending the nearly 30-year conflict that has cost tens of thousands of lives.

Turkey announced in December that it was talking to Ocalan with the aim of persuading his Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, to disarm. The group, which has been fighting for self-rule for Kurds in southeastern Turkey and greater rights for the minority group, is considered a terror organization by Turkey and its Western allies.

Kurdish rebels have declared cease-fires in the past but these were ignored by the state, which vowed to fight the PKK until the end. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government has also admitted to having held failed, secret talks with the PKK in past years, but this latest attempt — being held more publicly and with Ocalan's greater participation — has raised hopes for a successful negotiated settlement.

Government officials have warned of possible attempts to "sabotage" the talks by groups opposed to the peace initiative. Erdogan on Wednesday suggested that attacks this week on the Justice Ministry and the headquarters of his ruling party — which wounded one person — may be an attempt to hurt the process.

In a poignant reminder of the precarious nature of the initiative, a sign posted on a podium set up at the venue of the festivities read: "We are ready for (both) peace and insurgency."

As part of the peace efforts, the government is expected to boost the rights of Kurds through a series of reforms, including a more democratic new constitution that is likely to underscore equal rights for Kurds and could increase the power of local authorities. Kurds are also seeking the release of hundreds of Kurdish activists jailed for alleged links to the PKK as well as improved jail conditions for Ocalan who is serving a life prison term on an island near Istanbul.

But many Kurds believe Ocalan should be freed as part of the peace deal. "A democratic solution and freedom for Ocalan," read a poster. "As long as Ocalan is not free, peace would be a mistake," said another.

A key demand by the PKK is guarantees that its fighters would not be attacked during any retreat. Erdogan has said he is open to the creation of an independent committee that could oversee the withdrawal of an estimated 4,000 rebel fighters, initially to northern Iraq.

Turkish forces reportedly attacked PKK guerrillas as they retreated in 1999 while obeying orders from Ocalan who had appealed for peace soon after his capture that year, as well as during another unilateral decision to withdraw in 2004.

The spring festival, or Newroz — which means "new year" — is mainly marked by Kurds in Turkey. Kurdish demonstrators in the past have used the celebration to assert Kurdish demands and many events have resulted in violent clashes between participants and Turkish security forces.

In a gesture in support of the peace efforts meanwhile, the families of Turkish soldiers and Kurdish rebels killed in the conflict assembled around a "reconciliatory" dinner table in the southeastern province of Sanliurfa on Wednesday, news reports said.

Kurds make up an estimated 20 percent of Turkey's population of 75 million. The rebels took up arms in 1984 to fight for Kurdish independence but later revised that goal to autonomy in southeastern Turkey. The group frequently launches attacks on Turkey from bases in northern Iraq.

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Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey.

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