Rebel leader expected to declare cease-fire

Mar 21, 2013, 6:32 AM EDT
In this photo taken Sunday, March 17, 2013, Kurds hold banners depicting imprisoned Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan in Istanbul, Turkey.
(AP Photo)

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 celebrated by Kurds in the largest city in Turkey's mainly Kurdish southeast.

Tens of thousands of people, waving 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 in Turkey.

Turkey announced in December that it is 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 the past years, but this latest attempt — being held more publicly and with Ocalan's greater participation — has raised hopes for the successful negotiated settlement.

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 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.

Kurds make up an estimated 20 percent of Turkey's some 75 million-population. 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.


Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey.