Kurdish rebels halt withdrawal from Turkey

AP News
Posted: Sep 09, 2013 9:49 AM
Kurdish rebels halt withdrawal from Turkey

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Kurdish rebels announced Monday they are suspending their withdrawal from Turkey into bases in northern Iraq over what they say is the Turkish government's failure to advance peace talks aimed at ending a nearly 30-year-old conflict.

The Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, declared a cease-fire in March and began withdrawing fighters from Turkey in May as part of the peace efforts. Turkey in turn was expected to enact reforms to improve Kurdish rights.

But a statement from the PKK, carried by the pro-Kurdish Firat news agency, accused Turkey of failing to honor its side of the bargain and called on it to take steps toward "democratization and the resolution of the Kurdish problem."

The group said the cease-fire would stand.

Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag dismissed the rebel statement and said Turkey was determined to take steps toward ending the conflict.

"Whatever the terror organization does is up to them," Bozdag said. "But Turkey will do whatever needs to be done."

"Turkey has always taken precautions in relation to all sorts of alternative scenarios and will continue to do so. We shall continue to work and to struggle until the terror comes to an end," he said, without elaborating.

This is a politically sensitive time for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is facing local elections in March and may be reluctant to take controversial steps that may be seen as concessions to the rebels.

Erdogan's government has said it is working on a package of democratic reforms, but it has delayed bringing the proposals to Parliament. The government has also argued that the rebels have not fully pulled out from Turkey, with Erdogan stating last month that only 20 percent of the fighters had left Turkish territory.

The rebels blamed Erdogan's government for their actions.

"The government — which gave no importance to the fact that the guerrillas had significantly withdrawn out of Turkey's border, which did not reciprocate and which tried to use the process as a diversion and to enter local elections in a peaceful environment — is responsible for the situation," the rebel statement said.

The PKK said it wants the government to ease the isolation of the PKK's imprisoned leader Abdullah Ocalan and change anti-terrorism laws to ensure the release hundreds of Kurdish activists accused of links to the rebels. Ocalan, who is leading the peace talks on behalf of the rebels, is serving a life term on a prison island off Istanbul and has limited access to lawyers and Kurdish politicians involved in the talks. Other demands include the education of Kurdish school children in their mother tongue.

The PKK's northern Iraq-based commander Cemil Bayik accused the government last week of not fulfilling obligations and warned that fighting could resume.

But Kurdish politician Ahmet Turk said the announcement was a move to force the government to act but did not spell an end to the peace process.

"It is a decision to enable (the PKK) to see what the government's intentions are," Turk told the private Dogan news agency. "If it displays projects toward peace, then the process will continue."

The conflict between Turkey and the autonomy-seeking PKK has claimed tens of thousands of lives since 1984. The group is considered a terror organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.