ISTANBUL // Adding new momentum to efforts to end the Kurdish conflict after 25 years of bloodshed, the military and the government in Turkey have appealed to Kurdish PKK rebels to give themselves up to the state. Recent reports also indicate that Ankara is planning to use a large UN-run refugee camp in northern Iraq as a base for the disarmament of rebels and is willing to let rebel leaders go into exile in Scandinavia.
"We say: come, give yourself up. Trust Turkish justice," Gen Ilker Basbug, Turkey's chief of general staff, said during a reception in Ankara this week, as he was standing next to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister. Gen Basbug said most PKK members had nothing to fear from Turkish courts and would go free under existing amnesty regulations, according to press reports. The general cited a recent report saying 10 out of 14 members of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, who surrendered last month were set free unconditionally. Only two were taken into custody; the remaining two were set free pending trial. Mr Erdogan said some PKK members may be unsure "if they will be set free or not in case they surrender. They are set free."
The statements by Gen Basbug and Mr Erdogan are part of a charm offensive by the army and the government designed to end the PKK rebellion that started in 1984 and has cost tens of thousands of lives. Mr Erdogan's government is working on a comprehensive plan to end the conflict by giving the country's estimated 12 million Kurds more rights. The military says it supports the government's initiative as long as national unity is not undermined and has been trying to build trust in the Kurdish area in south-eastern Turkey. This week, a military marching band in Diyarbakir, the main city in the Kurdish region, performed Kurdish songs for the first time, newspapers reported yesterday.
In another sign of change, police forces in several predominately Kurdish areas have started to take on Kurdish native speakers to answer calls on telephone hotlines. "We have as many Kurdish speaking citizens as Turkish speaking ones," Mehmet Bilici, police chief in the eastern city of Adiyaman, told Turkish media. He said he had employed enough Kurdish speakers to answer calls 24 hours a day to "better understand tip-offs".
Local decisions like that may be commonplace in other countries. But in Turkey, a state that has traditionally regarded national unity as its top priority and that banned the use of the Kurdish language in the 1990s because it was seen as a symbol of separatism, they are regarded as spectacular and make the news nationwide. "Some of the things we are talking about now were a crime 10 years ago," the daily newspaper Radikal commented.
Mr Erdogan has so far not given any details as to what his Kurdish plan will include, although he said this year that he is in favour of restoring Kurdish names to villages and towns. There are also plans by several state universities to set up departments for Kurdish language and literature. According to the Sabah newspaper, the government is also thinking about how the PKK fighting force could be disarmed peacefully. Thousands of Turkish Kurds living in the Mahmur refugee camp in northern Iraq at the moment are to be repatriated, the newspaper reported. PKK fighters are then to be invited to the camp to lay down their arms and begin training courses to ease their return into civilian life in Turkey. The PKK leadership is to be offered exile in Sweden or Norway, said the newspaper, which is considered to be close to the government.
There has been no official comment on the report. But Iraq's president, Jalal Talabani, told Reuters that the PKK should take the opportunity offered by the "new climate" in Turkey. "The Kurds are trying to convince the PKK to accept the peace proposals of the Turkish government, then to lay down their arms and go back home, to participate in political activities in Turkey," Mr Talabani said. Central and regional authorities in Iraq have increased their pressure on the PKK to leave the country, in an effort to ensure good relations with neighbouring Turkey once the US forces leave Iraq in the coming years.
Meanwhile, Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the PKK, has worked out his own "road map" for a solution of the Kurdish issue. Ocalan's lawyers said their client last week handed his long-awaited plan to authorities on the prison island of Imrali, where he has been serving a life sentence since 1999, and asked them to pass it on to the press and to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. There is no indication so far whether authorities will comply with the request.
Details of Ocalan's plan are not known, although the PKK leader told his lawyers this month he wants a strong Kurdish autonomy under the roof of the Turkish state. Ankara does not accept the PKK chief, who is still seen as a hero by many Kurds, as an interlocutor, but the fact that Ocalan's plan is now in the hands of the authorities gives the government a chance to have a look at his suggestions without talking to him.