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Pressure on Turkey to accept jailed rebel

Abdullah Ocalan's road map, aimed at providing a major breakthrough in the long-running Kurdish conflict, has sparked intense debate.

ISTANBUL // Over the years, Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed Kurdish rebel leader, has often tried, and failed, to be accepted by the Turkish state as an interlocutor who can help to solve the long-running Kurdish question. Now, more than 10 years after Ocalan's arrest, Ankara is under pressure to finally listen to him. Ocalan, founder and leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, has been preparing a road map for a solution to the Kurdish conflict, which he wants to present about Aug 15, the date on which the PKK made its first armed attack in 1984. His rebel group has said it will extend an existing unilateral truce until Sept 1 to give Ankara a chance to evaluate its leader's suggestions.

"There is an expectation that this will be important," Cengiz Cicek, one of Ocalan's lawyers, said yesterday. But he cautioned it was too early to tell whether Ocalan's "road map" would represent a breakthrough in efforts to solve the Kurdish conflict. "It will become clear from reactions afterwards," he said. Turkey's main Kurdish party, the Party for a Democratic Society, or DTP, called on Ankara to listen to Ocalan.

"If the road map that is to be announced is taken seriously, that will be the most practical way to solve the Kurdish problem," Selahattin Demirtas, a leading DTP deputy in Turkey's parliament, told the Sabah newspaper. "Everything he says is binding for everyone in the PKK, from top to bottom." Ocalan's initiative follows a series of steps in recent months that suggest a new beginning in Turkey's Kurdish policy.

Ankara started its first state-run television channel in Kurdish in January, and both political and military leaders have said that the Kurdish conflict cannot be solved by military means alone. Abdullah Gul, the Turkish president, called for a solution within this year, while Murat Karayilan, the PKK's de facto leader in Ocalan's absence, has said his rebels are ready for peace if key demands are met.

These developments have created a sense of hope in a country that has been unable to end a guerrilla war within its borders for 25 years. Tens of thousands of people have died since the PKK took up arms against the Turkish state in 1984 to fight for greater Kurdish autonomy. Ocalan has been in solitary confinement on the island of Imrali in the Sea of Marmara south-west of Istanbul since he received a life sentence for treason after his arrest in February 1999.

Although he has remained an influential figure for many Kurds, Ankara has refused to talk to him, arguing that Turkey would not negotiate with terrorists. That may be about to change. "The fact that Turkey so far has not tried to create a realistic relationship with Ocalan has been, in my view, an historic mistake," Ertugrul Ozkok, editor of Hurriyet, Turkey's top-selling newspaper, wrote in a column. "I believe that he can play a very important role in solving the Kurdish conflict."

Until recently, statements like these would have landed a Turkish commentator in trouble for supporting the PKK. The fact that Ozkok, the editor of a leading centre-right newspaper that has been a staunch supporter of Turkey's military, acknowledges that Ocalan has a part to play shows how much has changed in Turkey. "For years the official line of all of us, including myself, has been to call him 'gang leader', 'ring leader' or 'baby killer'," Ozkok wrote about Ocalan. "Now, there is a psychological climate that is more conducive to a solution of this [Kurdish] problem."

According to Ozkok, Ocalan's road map will include the PKK's terms for a complete disarmament of the rebel group and an end to the armed struggle, but Mr Cicek, the lawyer, said he could not confirm this. Ocalan will probably present his plan via his lawyers, who are allowed to visit him once a week but who have to be careful not to appear to act as spokesmen for a man branded a terrorist. While Ocalan is preparing his road map, there has been much discussion about the approach the Turkish state should take. The foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, in comments reported yesterday, ruled out direct talks with Ocalan.

"The platforms of our discussions are clear," Mr Davutoglu said. "They are the cabinet and the National Security Council. One should not look for another platform." Turkey's main opposition party, the Republican People's Party, or CHP, supported Mr Davutoglu's stance. Mustafa Ozyurek, a leading CHP member, urged the government to take the initiative itself. "It would be a shame for the Turkish Republic to wait for Abdullah Ocalan to provide solutions."

But analysts say Ankara needs representatives of the Kurdish side to talk to if it wants to end the conflict. In the past, Turkey saw no need to look for such an interlocutor because it did not even recognise that there was a Kurdish problem, commentator Rusen Cakir wrote in the Vatan newspaper. Even if the government preferred to talk to the DTP, rather than to Ocalan, it would still end up having to decide whether or not to enter into dialogue with the jailed PKK leader, Cakir wrote: "The DTP people will say: 'The man you have to talk to is Ocalan.'"

It is also possible the government will pre-empt Ocalan with its own reform plans. That way, "the statements coming from Imrali would look like a reaction to Ankara's plan for a solution", the respected commentator Mehmet Ali Birand wrote in the Posta newspaper. "This scenario would gain prestige for Turkey and at the same time would give Turkey the chance to seize the initiative when it comes to the search for a solution."

tseibert@thenational.ae