Turkey passes bill to revive Kurdish peace talks

Ankara (AFP) - Turkish lawmakers Thursday adopted a bill to revive peace talks with Kurdish rebels, in a move the government hopes will rally Kurdish votes to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's bid to win presidential elections next month.

The jailed leader of the outlawed rebel Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan, hailed the move as a "historic development" and called on Turkey to implement the law "without losing time".

The law, also deemed as a "turning point" by the government, would grant immunity to key actors including politicians, diplomats and spies involved in peace talks with Kurdish militants. It aims to end a three-decade long insurgency that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.

The six-article package of reforms proposed by Erdogan's Islamic-rooted government provides a "legal framework" to advance peace negotiations with the PKK, which is designated as a terrorist organisation by Ankara and its Western allies.

It would facilitate the rehabilitation of militants from the PKK who give up arms to return home to Turkey, and give the cabinet the authority to appoint individuals and bodies to carry out talks regarding the so-called "Kurdish question".

The law would also prevent officials from being prosecuted for taking necessary measures to ensure that insurgents lay down arms and return to Turkey.

The measures were passed with 237 votes in favour and 37 against in the 550-seat parliament where Erdogan's AKP party has comfortable majority.

Outgoing Turkish President Abdullah Gul must now sign the bill for it to become law.

- Boost for flagging peace deal -

Turkey's Kurds, who long complained of discrimination at the hands of the state, have begun to enjoy broader but limited democratic rights since Erdogan came to power in 2003 -- including education in their mother tongue in private schools.

Erdogan's government launched clandestine peace talks with the Ocalan in 2012 for a peaceful settlement to the conflict in the Kurdish majority southeast.

The rebels declared a ceasefire last year but peace talks stalled in September, when the insurgents said they were suspending their pullout from Turkish soil after accusing the government of failing to deliver on promised reforms including constitutional recognition.

Ocalan, in his message relayed on Thursday by pro-Kurdish lawmakers who visited him in his prison on the island of Imrali near Istanbul, said: "It should not be forgotten that it will be the peoples who will be winners at the end of this process."

Local media reported on Saturday that Kurdish rebels would begin retreating from Turkey into their safe haven in northern Iraq in September as soon as the reforms came into force.

The withdrawal process is reportedly due to be finalised within 18 months.

This second withdrawal by PKK militants will be subject to legal supervision, unlike the first one that started in May 2013.

- Ahead of presidential election -

The presentation of the bill comes as Erdogan is running to succeed Gul.

When he declared his candidacy for the presidency early this month, Erdogan pledged that the peace talks with the PKK would be rekindled.

"Turkey has no other option than a solution, brotherhood and peace," he said.

Backing from the country's Kurdish minority, who make up one fifth of the population, would secure Erdogan an outright victory in the first round of the polls due on August 10.

The election is shaping up as a two-horse race between Erdogan and opposition candidate Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, an intellectual who has not much chance against the formidable premier.

Another candidate, Selahattin Demirtas, was put forward by the pro-Kurdish HDP party, and is expected to struggle to break into double figures on polling day as many Kurds are expected to vote for Erdogan.