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Kurdish rebels issue arms threat

Eight months after the start of peace talks, Kurdish rebels say they will take up arms again if Turkey does not move swiftly to grant more rights to the Kurdish minority. Thomas Seibert reports from Istanbul

ISTANBUL // Eight months after the start of peace talks, Kurdish rebels say they will take up arms again if Turkey does not move swiftly to grant more rights to the Kurdish minority.

In the latest sign that efforts to negotiate a peaceful end to Turkey's long-running Kurdish conflict have run into serious trouble, a rebel commander this week said the government had until September 1 to come up with political reforms to improve the lives of the country's 12 million Kurds or face fresh fighting.

The warning came after rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan spoke of a possible breakdown of peace talks.

The government insists it will not be pressured by the rebels, but says it is working on a package of reforms that could answer some Kurdish demands.

On the orders of the government, Hakan Fidan, the head of Turkey's intelligence service MIT, started peace talks with Ocalan, the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

The rebel group has been fighting for Kurdish self-rule since 1984 in a conflict that has cost more than 40,000 lives.

As a result of the talks, Ocalan ordered thousands of PKK fighters to withdraw from Turkey to their stronghold in northern Iraq in the spring. No serious fighting has been reported since.

But now, the "solution process", as the peace talks are called by Turkish politicians, shows signs of unravelling, as the rebels accuse the government of failing to improve the rights of Kurds.

They say Ankara appears unwilling to hold up its side of the bargain after the PKK took a first step by withdrawing its fighters.

Cemil Bayik, a leading PKK commander, said on Wednesday that Ankara had to move quickly to save the peace process.

"If no steps are taken until September 1, it will become clear that the aim [of the government] is not a solution, but liquidation and murder," Mr Bayik said according to the Firat news agency, a PKK mouthpiece.

"In that case, the liberation movement and the Kurdish people will defend themselves against that liquidation."

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Ocalan, who remains the PKK's highest authority although he has been in prison for more than 14 years, also said this week that the peace process was in danger, but he gave the government more time to act.

Mr Bayik brought forward the deadline by a month after Ocalan had told Ozgur Gundem, Turkey's main pro-Kurdish newspaper, that "the government has to take a step for the process until October 1".

Speaking during a visit by an uncle and his sister on the prison island of Imrali, close to Istanbul, where he has been held since his capture in 1999, Ocalan said a failure by the government to act could be fatal.

"I am not saying that I will withdraw from the process after October 1," Ocalan said. "But if no steps are being taken until then, it is obvious that we will not be able to develop the process."

According to other Turkish media, which also quoted the PKK leader's relatives, Ocalan did threaten to withdraw from the talks after October 1 and just "sit and watch".

The government rejects the idea that the peace process calls for a give and take between Ankara and the rebels and insists it wants to solve the conflict by improving the rights of all Turkish citizens, not only those of Kurds.

But it concedes it is feeling under increasing pressure to come up with moves to respond to Kurdish demands in answer to the PKK's withdrawal.

Bulent Arinc, a deputy prime minister and government spokesman, said last week the government was confronted by questions such as: "They [the PKK] have withdrawn, now what are you going to do?"

Mr Arinc, speaking at an iftar meeting in Ankara, said the PKK had withdrawn only 20 per cent of several thousand fighters from Turkey so far.

He said the government was working on a package of reforms that could be passed by parliament after the summer recess in October that would "meet with a positive response", according to news reports about the meeting.

Mr Arinc indicated the package could include a change to the existing 10 per cent hurdle for parties to enter parliament, a key demand by Turkish main Kurdish party, the Party for Peace and Democracy (BDP), whose leaders have visited Ocalan on Imrali several times this year. But other reports said the 10 per cent threshold would remain in place.

News reports say the package contains new rules designed to encourage PKK members to lay down their arms by offering lighter sentences for members of the banned guerrilla group and a bill allowing towns and villages in the Kurdish region to change their current Turkish names into Kurdish ones.

Local authorities in the Kurdish area could also receive greater freedom to offer services in the Kurdish language, instead of in Turkish, which is the only official language in the country. The package was expected to be submitted to parliament shortly, the reports said.

tseibert@thenational.ae

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