x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 September 2017

Turkish PM Erdogan under fire for talks with Kurdish rebel group PKK

Recordings of secret meetings leaked as Turkish government confirms top intelligence figures held negotiations with the rebels.

ISTANBUL // Fresh from a tour of three countries of the Arab Spring, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister, has come under pressure at home for ordering secret talks between the country's intelligence service and Kurdish rebels, sworn enemies of the Turkish state.

"Come on and apologise to the people like a man," Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the opposition leader in Ankara, told Mr Erdogan in remarks posted on his party's website yesterday. Meanwhile, Tanju Ozcan, a deputy from Mr Kilicdaroglu's Republican People's Party (CHP) filed a criminal complaint against leading intelligence officials, while another CHP official called for Mr Erdogan to resign.

Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Turkey's second biggest opposition group after the CHP, said talks between the intelligence service and rebels were "shameful". He accused Mr Erdogan's government of "conducting secret negotiations with terrorists that feed on blood".

The barrage of criticism came after Mr Erdogan's government confirmed that leading members of the National Intelligence Organisation (MIT) had held confidential talks with top representatives of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a rebel group that has been fighting for Kurdish self-rule since 1984. Tens of thousands of people have died in the still unresolved conflict, which forms Turkey's biggest domestic problem.

A voice recording of talks between Hakan Fidan and Afet Gunes, two deputy MIT chiefs at the time, and Sabri Ok and Mustafa Karasu of the PKK was posted on the internet last week. It remained unclear where the talks took place: some reports say it was held under Norwegian mediation in Oslo, others say the venue was northern Iraq. The exact time of the meeting was unknown, although references in the recording suggest it constituted the fifth round of talks that were held in 2009 and 2010.

The recording was taken off the internet shortly after it was published, but Turkish newspapers printed transcripts of the talks.

Last year, Mr Erdogan confirmed that state officials were holding talks with Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed PKK leader, on the prison island of Imrali in the Sea of Marmara west of Istanbul. But the recording marked the first time that contacts between high-level intelligence officials and members of the active PKK leadership came to light. Mr Fidan, one of the MIT officials who participated and introduced himself as Mr Erdogan's special envoy in the recording, has since been made the MIT director.

Cemil Cicek, the speaker of Turkey's parliament, compared the secret PKK talks with efforts by the governments of the United Kingdom and Spain to end long-running disputes in Northern Ireland and the Basque country.

The secret talks shed light on a double strategy followed by Mr Erdogan's government in its efforts to convince the PKK to lay down its arms. Even as Ankara keeps up the military pressure on the PKK with air strikes on rebel positions in northern Iraq and threats to stage a large-scale intervention with ground troops into the neighbouring country, officials are engaged in behind-the-scenes efforts to cool down the conflict by negotiation, or even end it altogether.

Some news reports have suggested that the secret talks opened the way for a PKK ceasefire last year that was extended until parliamentary elections in Turkey this past June. Fighting has escalated in recent weeks.

The source of the leak is not known. Mr Erdogan hinted that Israel may be behind the publication of the recording. "We know certain circles have targeted Mr Hakan" Fidan, Mr Erdogan told reporters. He was referring to an Israeli government official who accused Mr Fidan of pro-Iranian tendencies when he became MIT chief last year.

tseibert@thenational.ae