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Turkish officials confirm talks with Kurdish rebel leader

Breaking a long-held taboo, the leadership admit to negotiations with Abdullah Ocalan to find ways to end a conflict that has cost tens of thousands of lives since 1984.

ISTANBUL // Breaking a long-held taboo, the Turkish leadership has confirmed for the first time that officials have been talking to Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed Kurdish rebel leader and Turkey's public enemy number one, in an effort to find ways to end a conflict that has cost tens of thousands of lives since 1984.

The revelation came only two-and- a-half weeks before a crucial referendum on constitutional reforms, and amid opposition claims that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, is wooing Kurdish voters to win the poll on September 12. Mr Erdogan told a television interviewer this week that his government would never negotiate with an organisation such as the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK. That is the rebel group that Ocalan founded and led until his capture by Turkish agents in 1999. But Mr Erdogan added that such contacts were conducted by "the state" if necessary. Asked to be more specific, the prime minister mentioned Turkey's intelligence service. "This is an intelligence job. What is the task of an intelligence service? To open some doors, to find solutions."

In remarks seen as a message of support for Mr Erdogan and the secret talks, Abdullah Gul, Turkey's president, said: "The fight against terror is not only conducted with weapons." Yalcin Akdogan, a senior adviser of Mr Erdogan, had previously revealed that state officials had held talks with Ocalan on the prison island of Imrali, where the PKK leader has been serving a life sentence. "It is unavoidable that state institutions enter into a dialogue with a prisoner held in a state prison," Mr Akdogan wrote in the Star newspaper on Monday. The PKK leadership also said there had been contacts between the state and Ocalan.

Cevat Ones, who served as a deputy director of Turkey's intelligence service, MIT, until 2005, said the dialogue between the state and Ocalan started several years ago. After Ocalan's capture, the talks were predominantly conducted by military officials, Mr Ones was reported as saying in yesterday's Taraf newspaper. Starting in 2006, talks had been held by MIT and police agents as well as politicians. He did not mention names.

Mr Erdogan insisted that his government, in power since November 2002, was not the first one to oversee contacts with Ocalan. During a speech in Sivas in central Anatolia on Tuesday, Mr Erdogan said the coalition government that preceded his own, and included a nationalist party that is now highly critical of Mr Erdogan's approach to the Kurdish question, had established contacts with Ocalan as well.

"Didn't they talk to the head of the terrorist organisation?" Mr Erdogan asked his audience. "Of course they didn't do the talking themselves. Who does? The intelligence services talk to him, officials of the justice ministry talk to him." Officially, Ankara rejects demands by Kurdish activists that the PKK or Ocalan be accepted as interlocutors in efforts to find a peaceful solution for the Kurdish conflict.

But in the secret talks with Ocalan, military and intelligence officers tried several times to get the PKK leader to call ceasefires, according to Mr Ones, the former intelligence official. In recent years, the scope of the talks had been widened to include issues such as possible conditions for the disarmament of the PKK, but the dialogue did not reach the level and depth of negotiations between authorities in Spain and Northern Ireland with separatist groups on their territories, he said.

Although 11 years have passed since his imprisonment, Ocalan is still revered by many Kurds. The operational leadership of the PKK has passed into the hands of rebel leaders hiding in northern Iraq, but Ocalan's word continues to carry weight. He is reported to send his messages to the Kurds and the PKK via his lawyers, who are allowed to visit him once a week. Opposition leaders accused Mr Erdogan of having reached a secret deal with the PKK after the rebels recently announced a ceasefire that is to last until after the September 12 referendum. The Erdogan government rejected the claim, saying the opposition was slinging mud to increase its chances to defeat the prime minister in the referendum.

But Mr Akdogan, the Erdogan adviser, praised the role Ocalan played in getting the ceasefire in place. He also welcomed the fact that Ocalan pointedly refused to support calls by the Party for Peace and Democracy, or BDP, Turkey's main Kurdish party, for Kurdish voters to boycott the vote, thereby indirectly strengthening Mr Erdogan's position. The referendum was called over a package of constitutional amendments that includes steps to strengthen civilian control over the military and a reform of key judicial bodies. But strong rivalries between the government and opposition parties have turned the decision on September 12 into a vote of confidence over Mr Erdogan's leadership. Polls say the vote will be close. Support from the Kurds could give Mr Erdogan a decisive boost.

At first, the BDP said the package does not take Kurdish demands for more rights into account and asked their supporters to stay away from the voting booths. After Ocalan's refusal to endorse the boycott, BDP officials have softened their rhetoric. Many observers predict that a majority of Kurds will now back the referendum. @Email:tseibert@thenational.ae