By Daren Butler
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Images of smiling Kurdish MPs hugging rebels, rifles slung over their shoulders, at a remote roadblock in Turkey's mountainous southeast hit a raw nerve.
The embrace, depicted in Turkish newspapers as battles raged with government troops, fed a climate of animosity which is undermining hopes of a revival of secret talks to end a 28-year-old separatist conflict.
Escalating violence could instead now entrench a primarily military response from Ankara to an insurgency that has killed more than 40,000 people. Nine Turkish police and soldiers were killed over the weekend in clashes with Kurdish rebels.
The roadside meeting came as Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) rebels, inspired by the growing influence of an allied Kurdish group in Syria, laid siege to Turkey's mountainous district of Semdinli bordering Iraq and Iran.
"It is a vicious cycle," said Soner Cagaptay from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Whenever there is a spike in violence, Turkey's willingness to consider a political solution becomes weaker."
Ankara sees the hand of Damascus in the PKK's new found energy, accusing it of arming the rebels and allowing a PKK-linked party to control parts of Syria to prevent locals joining the 17-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.
"The PKK has been excited by the developments in Syria and is trying to prove its worth and credibility by trying to take parts of Turkish territory, however temporarily," Cagaptay said.
In a show of strength, the PKK has set up roadblocks and kidnapped Turkish officials and is believed to be behind recent deadly bomb attacks on the western coast of Turkey and in the city of Gaziantep, near the Syrian border.
"The aim of these acts is to show that no place in Turkey is safe, that they are capable of spreading terrorism to every region...and prove their control and influence," said retired major general Armagan Kuloglu, an analyst at a think-tank in Ankara.
He said the attacks were aimed to sow discord between Kurds and Turks. The PKK, listed as a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and European Union, had little prospect of drawing Ankara back to the negotiating table with such a strategy.
Talking to the PKK was long unpalatable to Turkish public opinion. While recordings leaked last year from secret meetings in Oslo between the intelligence service and the outlawed group suggested times may have changed, that window for negotiations may be closing.
Erdogan, whose opening to the rebels was unprecedented, will be under pressure to adopt a harder line on the Kurdish problem as he seeks broad right-wing support ahead of his expected bid for a restyled, powerful executive presidency in 2014.
Those talks were a bold and risky move by Erdogan, with many Turks viewing them as a charade.
The roadside embraces did little to bolster the image of Kurdish politicians as credible interlocutors, serving rather as fuel for those who oppose a negotiated end to the war.
Progress towards a political solution has also been stymied by mutual recriminations among political parties over the issue, which led the government to block a debate on the violence in parliament this month.
In an apparent bid to revive political discussion, Parliament Speaker Cemil Cicek issued a plan stressing the need for a more democratic and liberal constitution and measures to boost economic development in the southeast.
"This problem is not one that can be solved purely by security measures," Cicek wrote in an 11-point plan to end the insurgency. "It requires all political parties, NGOs and all sections of society to act responsibly together in harmony."
Government spokesman Bulent Arinc swiftly dismissed Cicek's plan while a deputy leader of Erdogan's AK Party blamed opposition parties for the impasse, saying they had rejected government bids to work together on a solution.
CRACKDOWN ON ACTIVISTS
Besides the human toll, the conflict has hampered economic development in one of Turkey's poorest corners and has added to instability in an already fragile region bordering Iran, Iraq and Syria.
Turkey's policy on the Kurdish problem also sits uneasily alongside its courting of Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region, from where Ankara imports oil and with whom it is increasingly a significant investment and trading partner.
While the Syrian chaos has fed the violence, analysts say the PKK is also encouraged by the belief Kurds have been alienated by a nationwide crackdown on Kurdish activists in Turkey.
Police have arrested thousands of activists accused of involvement in the Union of Kurdistan Communities (KCK), an alleged parallel state apparatus formed by the PKK.
"The indiscriminate, wholesale detention of Kurdish activists has suffocated the Kurdish political movement and left little breathing room for it in the political arena," said Sedat Ergin, columnist with the Hurriyet daily.
The PKK is also exploiting disappointment at a stalled government initiative in recent years to boost the rights of some 12-15 million Kurds in Turkey, mainly through language and cultural reforms.
"The PKK has decided to further polarize the situation by using the intense disappointment with the government strategy," said Henri Barkey, an international relations professor at Lehigh University.
The reforms have failed to satisfy increasingly emboldened Kurdish politicians, who demand Kurdish autonomy and called last month for the release of imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan - an idea which would enrage a vast majority of Turks.
Ocalan, jailed on an island near Istanbul since 1999, has not seen his lawyers or family members for the last year.
Kurdish politicians' growing defiance was illustrated dramatically by their warm response to the PKK rebels who halted them at the Semdinli roadblock. The pictures of the impromptu meeting triggered an investigation by the state and opposition calls to lift their immunity from prosecution.
Nearly all of the nine MPs in the delegation were from the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), the most popular in the southeast alongside the AK Party. The incident could add to the risk of it being banned like other pro-Kurdish parties before it.
The European Union has called on the BDP to clearly distance itself from the PKK. But while the BDP rejects violence or any material link to the militants it shares a similar goal of Kurdish autonomy and looks sympathetically on them.
"Embracing them is a completely humane thing because we see those people as our children," BDP co-chairperson Gultan Kisanak told Reuters in an interview.
(Additional reporting by Tulay Karadeniz and Pinar Aydinli; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Ralph Boulton)