Turkey: imprisoned leader of Kurdish rebels seen as factor in any end to a long conflict

By Christopher Torchia, AP
Friday, October 8, 2010

Turkey’s Kurds: a peace role for rebel chief?

ISTANBUL — Maniac, terrorist, baby-killer, traitor. The Turkish state vilified Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned chief of Kurdish rebels, for his deadly attacks on soldiers and civilians in the 1990s. Today, it is a crime to praise him. Now come reports that Turkish officials have held secretive talks with Ocalan, possibly in recognition that he cannot be ignored in any deal to end the long conflict.

Turkey says it does not negotiate with illegal groups, which would confer political legitimacy on them, but acknowledges that intelligence agents have talked to Ocalan on his prison island for years. Ocalan does not run rebel operations, but he retains considerable sway over militants who have largely preserved the personality cult with which he imposed control as a free man.

Reports of Ocalan’s most recent dialogue with his captors coincide with a government campaign to secure peace and appear to have a broader scope than much of the contact since his arrest in 1999. It is a sensitive undertaking, but the government is buoyant after passage of constitutional amendments in a Sept. 12 referendum that was seen as a vote of confidence on its stewardship.

“Within the past two months, there have been contacts on Imrali island that were carried out in the name of the state and within the government’s knowledge,” said Dogan Erbas, Ocalan’s lawyer.

“We cannot say that the dialogue is ongoing or that it yielded extensive results. I do not think that we have reached the stage of negotiations. It is too early to say that the peace process has begun,” Erbas said.

The fighting, though diminished in intensity, is a drag on Turkey’s evolution as a regional power and its aim to join the European Union. The grievances of its ethnic Kurd minority imply that a country with deep fissures is a flawed model or voice for its neighbors.

Tens of thousands, many of them civilians, have died since the rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party took up arms in 1984; rebels this year have killed at least 93 people, mostly soldiers, according to the military.

John Bew, co-author of “Talking to Terrorists: Making Peace in Northern Ireland and the Basque Country,” said there was good reason to be skeptical about the talks with Ocalan and he drew a distinction between exploratory contact and direct negotiations. The political impact from revelations of secret talks between a government and an armed group can also affect the process, he said.

According to Erbas, Ocalan’s proposals for the resolution of the conflict were discussed in recent meetings. Those have included autonomy, an option rejected by Turkey, and more cultural and economic rights for Kurds who comprise up to 20 percent of the country’s 75 million people. The rebel force, known by its Kurdish acronym PKK, has at least 5,000 fighters, and Turkey alleges that the main Kurdish political group, the Peace and Democracy Party, acts as the political wing for militants whose commanders are based in northern Iraq.

The Kurdish party denies that, but maintains Ocalan, 62, must be involved in any solution. Though many Kurds view his bloody record with distaste, he is an idol to young men who illegally brandish his image and chant his name during periodic protests in Kurdish areas.

A rebel statement sent to media by email on Oct. 1 referred to “the state’s development of dialogue” with Ocalan as well as the “increasing quality” of the communication. It said the dialogue prompted Ocalan, who sends messages through his lawyers, to recommend an extension of the PKK’s unilateral cease-fire, which was duly extended until the end of October.

In a Sept. 29 statement, rebels quoted Ocalan as predicting the creation of parliamentary commissions to prepare a new constitution and to investigate human rights abuses after Turkey holds elections next year.

Opposition lawmakers said a senior official from Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization held a meeting with Ocalan in the summer, but Turkey has not confirmed the allegation. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last month that the government has no “fantasy” about talking to “the terrorist organization” — the official term for the PKK — but he and other leaders have said many channels are possible on the long road to peace.

“The method is up to the experts,” President Abdullah Gul said last month in response to a Turkish journalist’s question about reports of government contacts with Ocalan. “How it is done, what needs to be done. The experts are at times the commanders, the security forces. At times it is the intelligence officers, at times it is economic, socio-cultural activities.”

Roj Welat, a PKK spokesman in northern Iraq, said by telephone that Ocalan is the group’s representative in any talks with the Turkish government. The group is not entirely cohesive, and some militants are believed to have conducted attacks without approval from the command. State arrests and prosecutions of Kurdish activists and politicians have also contributed to the fragility of settlement efforts.

The turmoil goes back to the 1923 foundation of modern Turkey, when Kurds were thwarted in their aim to become independent. Today’s Islamic-oriented government, which won election after the worst rebel violence and stripped the military of political clout as part of a reform process, says force alone is not a solution.

“In order to solve the Kurdish problem in a permanent manner, one needs to be in dialogue with everyone,” said Cengiz Aktar, a political science professor at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul. “Since the election is only eight months away, these talks will probably continue below the surface so as not spark any controversy.”

Associated Press Writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, Erol Israfil in Istanbul and Yahya Barzanji in Sulaimaniyah, Iraq contributed to this report.

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