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Killings continue during PKK truce

Kurdish rebel leaders divorce themselves from attacks, but observers doubt an end to long and bloody conflict with Ankara is near

ISTANBUL // A string of deadly bomb attacks by Kurdish rebels against Turkish soldiers, despite a truce declared by the rebel leadership, has raised questions about whether it is possible to end the fighting that has raged in south-eastern Anatolia for the last 25 years. The Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) declared a truce in its fight against the Turkish army in April. The truce was to end on June 1, but the organisation said this week it had extended it until July 15 in an effort "to give a chance to the creation of a peaceful atmosphere". "If there are positive developments in the direction of a solution during this time, the period of non-action can be extended until September 1," the PKK statement, carried by the pro-Kurdish Firat news agency, said. The PKK called on the Turkish army to stop its operations as well and stressed its fighters would use the "right of self-defence" if attacked. On the face of it, the PKK statement fits in with a new atmosphere of hope concerning a possible solution of the Kurdish conflict in Turkey. A quarter century after the PKK started its fight for Kurdish autonomy in 1984, triggering a war that has killed tens of thousands of people, Turkey's political leaders and the public have been discussing new ways of solving the problem. But continued attacks by PKK fighters have raised doubts about whether the rebels are willing or able to make peace. Although the acting PKK leader, Murat Karayilan, has stressed the rebels were ready for a peaceful solution, PKK fighters killed 15 soldiers in two separate roadside bomb attacks in late April and last week. "The PKK will not lay down its arms," Nihat Ali Ozcan, an expert on the rebels at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey, a think tank in Ankara, said in a telephone interview this week. "It wants Turkey to abandon the principle of nation state and the state will not do that." Mr Ozcan said it was highly unlikely that the recent bomb attacks were staged without the knowledge of the PKK's central command. Mr Karayilan, the de-facto leader of the PKK, an organisation that still regards its jailed founder Abdullah Ocalan as its overall chief, told a Turkish newspaper that the bomb attack in April that killed nine soldiers had been committed without orders from the rebel leadership. "That was not a thing that was planned at headquarters," Mr Karayilan told the Milliyet daily last month. "It was a decision taken at the local level," he said, adding: "We also regret this." Turkish commentators say Mr Karayilan's statements are not credible. Writing after the death of six soldiers in last week's attack, Emre Uslu, a columnist at the Taraf newspaper, said "this attack shows that ? Karayilan is not sincere, and if he is sincere, he is not able to control his organisation". The two bomb attacks that killed the soldiers in April and May were not the only deadly acts of violence in Turkey's south-east in this period. Since April, 12 other people, including soldiers, civilians and members of a pro-Turkish Kurdish militia, have been killed in clashes and bomb attacks involving the PKK, according to figures posted on the website of the Turkish armed forces. In its statement, the PKK said it lost close to 35 fighters since its truce started in the middle of April. One problem for the PKK regarding a peaceful solution of the Kurdish question is that the armed struggle has become a raison d'être for the rebel group, observers say. Sedat Laciner, head of the International Strategic Research Organisation, a think tank in Ankara, told the Today's Zaman newspaper he expected more PKK attacks in the near future "because this is how it can survive: not by resolving the conflict, but by continuing to fight". That situation may make it harder for Ankara to end the conflict. For the first time since 1984, there is a consensus among politicians, the military and the intelligence community in Turkey that new political steps should be taken to solve the Kurdish question, Mr Laciner said. "We have never been so close to a solution to the Kurdish issue before." The government has said it is thinking about giving the country's estimated 12 million Kurds more rights to use their own language. Opposition leader Deniz Baykal said last week that a general amnesty for PKK members could be discussed if the rebels laid down their arms. According to news reports, Ankara is preparing to end the isolation of the PKK leader Ocalan, who is the only inmate on the prison island of Imrali near Istanbul. Six or seven PKK inmates from other prisons may soon be transferred to Imrali and Ocalan will get permission to talk to them for one hour every day, the reports said. Officials of the Council of Europe, who have repeatedly visited Ocalan on Imrali, called on Ankara to take steps to end the isolation of the PKK leader, who has been jailed on the island since Feb 1999. Kurdish politicians and the PKK have also been calling for an improvement of prison conditions for Ocalan. The justice ministry confirmed that additional buildings are being erected on Imrali, but said no decision had been taken about the transfer of prisoners there. tseibert@thenational.ae