ISTANBUL // Recep Tayyip Erdogan used a visit to Turkey's Kurdish region yesterday to call for unity between Turks and Kurds, amid speculation that the prime minister is about to start a new initiative to solve the long-running Kurdish conflict.
Mr Erdogan flew to the province of Van, near the border with Iran, for a ceremony marking the completion of housing complexes for tens of thousands of people made homeless by an earthquake that killed more than 600 people on October 23 last year.
"We will not encourage those who plant the seeds of separation," Mr Erdogan said during a televised speech in Ercis, a town in Van province that was flattened by the quake. "We will be one."
He called on Kurds to take a stand against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a militant group fighting for Kurdish self-rule since 1984 in an insurgency that has killed more than 40,000 people.
"We come to serve, they come to burn down and destroy."
The prime minister's visit came as efforts to solve the Kurdish conflict are gathering momentum following high-level talks of Kurdish politicians in Ankara. Mr Erdogan has also said he is ready to relaunch talks with the jailed Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan.
Ocalan, the PKK founder, has been serving a life sentence since 1999 on the prison island of Imrali near Istanbul.
Mr Erdogan has been applying a two-pronged approach to the conflict, matching military pressure on the PKK with political reforms designed to sap support for the militants among Turkey's estimated 12 million Kurds.
The government conducted separate confidential talks with both Ocalan, who remains a revered figure among many Kurds, and PKK representatives through Turkey's National Intelligence Service (MIT), but negotiations ended without a result last year.
Now, talks could be about to start again. A Kurdish politician has said fresh closed-door negotiations may already have begun.
Speaking to Turkish reporters travelling with him on a visit to Azerbaijan last week, Mr Erdogan said the Turkish intelligence service could "do anything at any moment", if asked by the government. "For example, if it is necessary to got to Imrali tomorrow, I will tell the MIT chief to go ahead," he said.
Mr Erdogan did not say which issues would be discussed by MIT officials and Ocalan if new talks were held. Key Kurdish demands in return for an end to the PKK's armed struggle are an improvement of Ocalan's prison conditions, complete abolishment of bans on the public use of the Kurdish language, and more autonomy for the Kurdish region.
This month, legislators from the Party for Peace and Democracy (BDP), Turkey's main Kurdish party that has close ties with the PKK, met Abdullah Gul, Turkey's president, as well as Cemil Cicek, the parliamentary speaker, and officials from Mr Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Hasip Kaplan, a leading BDP legislator, said fresh negotiations between the state and Ocalan might be under way already.
"I presume that talks on Imrali have started anew," Mr Kaplan told Turkish media on Sunday. There was no official comment.
Ocalan's last known contact to the outside world was a visit by his brother Mehmet last month. Mehmet Ocalan said afterwards his brother was ready to participate in new peace talks.
A role for Ocalan in the negotiations would answer a BDP demand. Another condition for peace cited by Kurdish politicians is the end of what they call the isolation of the PKK founder in prison. Hundreds of Kurdish prisoners in Turkish jails have gone on hunger strike to demand better prison conditions for Ocalan.
Mr Erdogan recently signalled the government's willingness to compromise. He introduced auxiliary Kurdish language courses in state middle schools for the first time and allowed Kurdish activists on trial for suspected support for the PKK to speak Kurdish in court.
But that has failed to end violence in the Kurdish region. Six members of the Turkish security forces died in clashes with PKK rebels in south-eastern Anatolia last week. PKK militants also threw firebombs at several state school buildings and kidnapped teachers in the Kurdish region to underline their demand for more Kurdish language rights.
Yalcin Akdogan, a close adviser to Mr Erdogan, said the government was sincere in its wish to end the Kurdish conflict, but he warned of overblown expectations.
"Of course everyone wants good things to happen," Mr Akdogan wrote in his column for the pro-government Star newspaper on Friday. "But exaggerating this atmosphere, like raising the bar of expectation, can result in psychological dissatisfaction and disappointment."
One reason behind Mr Erdogan's stated willingness to compromise may be local elections next year, when his party and the BDP are expected to be the main rivals in the Kurdish region.
In Van yesterday, Mr Erdogan criticised the BDP for failing to provide basic services in towns and cities governed by its representatives. "Voters should take them to account over this," he said.
Mazlum Dinc, a lawyer for Ocalan, said it was unclear whether the government was changing its policy.
Speaking in Istanbul this week, Mr Dinc said Ocalan had not been allowed to talk to his lawyers since July last year. "The isolation is continuing," he said, adding that they had asked the authorities for permission to see their client this week. There was no answer by yesterday afternoon, Mr Dinc's office said.
Mr Kaplan, the BDP legislator, said permission for Ocalan's lawyers to go to Imrali would be proof of the government's sincerity. Until that happens, he said, hunger strikes and the clashes in the Kurdish region would continue.
"The prime minister has to open the doors of Imrali immediately," Mr Kaplan said. "As long as the doors of Imrali are not opened, there will be deaths inside prisons, while deaths outside will continue."