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Turkey: Kurdish Rebels Call Off Cease-Fire And Offer Timetable For Peace Talks

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Turkey's most notorious guerrilla group, the Kurdistan Workers Party, this week announced the end of a five-year cease-fire with Ankara's armed forces. The announcement raises concerns about a resumption of large-scale military operations in predominantly Kurdish southeastern Anatolia. Observers generally blame Ankara's attitude toward Kurdish fighters and a lack of progress on legal reforms for Turkey's 12-million strong Kurdish minority for the group's decision.

Prague, 4 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Turkey's banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) says it has decided to call off a cease-fire because of Ankara's failure to abide by the agreement.

A PKK statement issued on 2 September through the pro-Kurdish, German-based Mezopotamia news agency said: "The unilateral truce has come to an end as of 1 September and the cease-fire can only continue on a bilateral basis."

The PKK -- which advocates political autonomy for Turkey's 12 million Kurds -- took up arms in 1984 to counter the increasingly anti-Kurdish policy implemented by Ankara following the 1980 military coup. The move triggered a 15-year guerrilla war that claimed an estimated 35,000 lives.

On 1 September 1998, Kurdish militants declared a unilateral truce -- the third since the beginning of their armed struggle. A few months later, imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan called upon Kurdish guerrillas to leave Turkey and seek refuge in neighboring Iraq, Syria, and Iran.

Armed forays conducted by Turkish troops in northern Iraq with the blessing of local Kurdish groups have failed to eradicate PKK militants there. An estimated 5,000 guerrillas are believed to be still hiding in the Qandil Mountains that separate northern Iraq from Iran.

Last year, the PKK changed its name to the Kurdistan Freedom and Democracy Congress (KADEK) and announced plans to engage in a peaceful struggle for Kurdish rights. The group's leaders said at the time the decision was motivated by a reassessment of the international situation following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.

Both Washington and the European Union have blacklisted the PKK as a terrorist group, despite claims by Kurdish guerrillas that they are freedom fighters. Yielding to Turkish pressure, a number of Western countries have outlawed the organization while tolerating the presence of Kurdish activists on their territory.

Although violence in Turkey's southeast has largely subsided following Ocalan's capture, sporadic armed clashes have continued, pitting Turkish troops against Kurdish guerrillas.

Ankara has never recognized the 1998 cease-fire and is now pressing the United States to crack down on PKK-KADEK militants based in northern Iraq.

In addition, Kurdish groups say, Turkey recently launched a series of military operations against guerrillas that have remained in its eastern provinces. Ankara denies the charge and blames the PKK-KADEK for a string of attacks on government officials and soldiers.

Kamuran Jikikan is the Paris-based Kurdish Institute's chief lawyer. He acknowledges a contradiction between KADEK's latest move and its pledge to fight for recognition exclusively through political means, but he says Turkey is to blame for the group's decision to call off the 1998 truce.

"[KADEK's] decision to put an end to the unilateral cease-fire is an answer to the Turkish authorities' stubborn refusal to start [peace] negotiations either directly or through mediators. Judging by the wording of the [KADEK] statement, one gets the impression that it is rather meant to force Turkey into engaging into a process that would eventually allow those 5,000 or so fighters who are still living in the mountains to return home," Jikikan says. "KADEK is already engaged in a political struggle through the Kurdish civil society. But it is true that [this week's statement] somehow contradicts the policy the group has been pursuing over the past four years."

Echoing Jikikan's comments, the pro-Kurdish "Ozgur Politika" daily on 2 September quoted Mustafa Karasu, a member of the nine-seat KADEK presidential council, as saying the group's main objective is to force Ankara into agreeing to a bilateral cease-fire. Karasu also reportedly said the end of the truce does not signal an immediate onslaught against Turkish forces.

"Over the next three months, we will struggle to achieve a bilateral cease-fire. From this point of view, we do not see [the end of the cease-fire] as a period of war," "Ozgur Politika" quoted the PKK-KADEK official as saying.

Ibrahim Dogus chairs the London-based Halkevi Kurdish and Turkish community center. He says the KADEK leadership has agreed on a 12-month "road map" with a view to opening peace talks with the Islamic-rooted government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

"This 'road map' [is made of] three stages. The first stage [begins] on 1 September 2003, and ends on 1 December 2003. What [the KADEK leadership] is demanding is that during these first three months the Turkish government put an end to military operations against Kurdish guerrillas, provide conditions for the return home of Kurdish villagers, grant political rights to the Kurdish people, and dissolve its paramilitary anti-guerilla units. So, basically, we will see whether the Turkish government is willing to [make peace] with the Kurdish people or, [on the contrary], restart the war. These three months will be very important," Dogus says.

Dogus says the "road map" -- which Ocalan reportedly initiated from his prison cell on Turkey's Imrali island -- also calls on Ankara to agree to confidence-building measures that would allow Turkey's Kurds to enjoy greater rights in their home country and pave the way for further democratization of Turkish society.

When it came to power in November of last year, Erdogan's Justice and Development Party promised to amend Turkey's legislation with a view to boosting its chances of entering the European Union. Among the demands put forward by Brussels are greater rights for Kurds and curbing the influence of Turkey's powerful military on domestic politics, especially on the Kurdish issue.

The Turkish parliament earlier this year voted several constitutional amendments meant to reduce the role of the National Security Council, Turkey's military-dominated main decision-making body, and allow greater rights for ethnic minorities.

Yet, Kurds and human rights group complain these reforms have had no practical effect yet. Furthermore, they point out, Turkey's judiciary last March banned the country's largest legal Kurdish political group -- the People's Democracy Party (HADEP) -- and initiated legal proceedings against another pro-Kurdish formation for allegedly threatening national interests.

Rochelle Harris is a spokeswoman for the Kurdish Human Rights Project, a London-based nongovernmental organization. She says continuing human rights violations in Turkey remain a major concern for Kurds in general, and for the PKK-KADEK in particular:

"The situation at the moment for the Kurds is that even though Turkey has passed a lot of reforms regarding the Kurdish language in broadcasting and so on, [these reforms] haven't been implemented on the ground, and there continues to be human rights violations in Turkey. And, obviously, the PKK has decided to address that in their own way," Harris says.

In a further attempt to boost its chances of joining the EU soon, Turkey last month decreed a partial amnesty law, which -- although it applies to all radical militants -- is primarily meant for Kurdish rebels.

The law, which has only a six-month validity, provides outright pardons for guerrillas that have not attacked Turkish targets in the past. Militants involved in violent actions should see their prison terms reduced if they provide information about their underground activities. Top PKK-KADEK leaders are excluded, however.

Kurds have denounced the pardon legislation -- dubbed "rehabilitation law" by the Turkish authorities -- as a ploy to dissolve the PKK-KADEK and refute Ankara's claims that hundreds of militants have already applied for pardons.

Rights activist Harris says the amnesty law is likely to miss its target, as did similar legislation in the past.

"There have been amnesty laws in the past, and they haven't worked. [Besides], it is not an amnesty law that [the Turks] have passed. What they have passed is a repentance law. What the PKK are demanding is an amnesty law, which would be a general amnesty, which would create a democratic platform for dialogue between the Kurdish population and the Turkish government. What they have right now is a kind of piecemeal measure that is not going to create that democratic platform," Harris says.

Kurdish lawyer Jikikan also believes the latest Turkish initiative is bound to fail: "It is the word 'amnesty' that is misleading. It is a repentance law that provides for a reduction of prison terms for those [militants] who confess. That explains why no one takes it seriously, and [PKK-KADEK] fighters will not surrender because they do not feel guilty. We are in a situation where people are at war and answering the actions of the Turkish army. This is the reason why [this pardon law] did not work. It did not work in its previous version, and it could not work in its second version. Turkish intellectuals and jurists knew it would turn out this way. They've said it, they've written it. KADEK was not alone in denouncing this law."

On 1 September, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul signaled that Ankara -- which has maintained hundreds of troops in northern Iraq since the 1991 Gulf War -- would seek Washington's help in cleansing the Qadil Mountains of PKK-KADEK militants in return for its contribution to the U.S.-led stabilization force in Iraq.

The U.S. administration is pressing Ankara to consider dispatching up to 10,000 troops near Baghdad and other areas in central Iraq. No decision has been taken so far, and it remains unclear whether Turkish lawmakers will endorse any troop deployments.

Washington is desperate for help in its efforts to quell instability and violence in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq and has reportedly promised Ankara that it will consider some of its demands regarding Kurdish rebels.

Western regional experts believe U.S. policymakers are faced with a quandary -- either move against the PKK-KADEK and risk further instability in Iraq, or fail to meet Turkish demands and lose Ankara's support in its efforts to stabilize the country.

Kurdish militants do not believe the U.S. will move against the PKK-KADEK for fear of disrupting the current balance of forces in Iraq.

"We don't think U.S. troops will attack Kurds because Iraqi Kurds have sided with [them] against Saddam and his regime," Halkevi chairman Dogus says, adding, "The Kurds are the United States' most important allies in the Middle East at the moment."