By Ayla Jean Yackley
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - The head of Turkey's main Kurdish party has called for talks between the government and Kurdish militants to prevent a further escalation of violence which she said could undermine efforts to draw up a new, more liberal constitution.
More than 700 people have been killed since elections in June 2011, according to the International Crisis Group, the highest toll in a 15-month period since Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) chief Abdullah Ocalan was captured and jailed in 1999.
Last week, fighters from the PKK - labeled a terrorist group by Turkey, Washington and the European Union - ambushed a military convoy, killing 10 soldiers and wounding about 60.
"Violence dominates now, from the Kurdish side and is also defining state policy," said Gultan Kisanak, co-chair of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). "If fighting intensifies further, there's a high risk it will spill over into ethnic clashes as social tensions rise."
"Let's return to the path of dialogue and negotiations and lessen the war," she told Reuters at the weekend.
The upsurge in violence coincides with efforts by Turkey's parliament to draft a more liberal constitution to replace a hardline charter drawn up after a 1980 military coup, and the government says it will include greater political freedoms for minorities. Parliament reconvenes after summer recess on October 1.
Recognizing Kurdish identity and rights are fundamental to Turkey's effort to join the European Union. It became a candidate for membership in 1999, but its drive has stalled over slow progress on human rights and arguments about Cyprus.
"The Kurdish problem is about rights and freedom, it's a legal issue, and a solution requires a constitutional foundation," Kisanak said.
"We need to focus on policies for peace and establish a climate of peace. Otherwise it's insincere to work on a constitution while people are dying and blood is being spilled."
Some political analysts link the violence with the failure of secret peace talks, thought to have been held in 2010, in Oslo between intelligence officials and PKK negotiators.
The PKK took up arms against the Turkish state in 1984 in a campaign to carve out an ethnic homeland in mainly Kurdish southeastern Turkey. More than 40,000 people, most of them Kurds, have died in the ensuing violence.
The rebels have scaled back their demands for more political autonomy for Turkey's estimated 15 million ethnic Kurds.
In the latest fighting, one soldier and three PKK fighters were killed late on Saturday after the rebels attacked two military outposts near the town of Tunceli.
More than a dozen people were hurt when an angry crowd stormed the BDP's local offices in the town of Bingol on Friday.
The BDP denies any outright connection with the guerrillas and has criticized some PKK attacks, but opponents say it has not distanced itself enough from the group.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has said Turkey will halt its operations against the militants once they lay down arms.
An outspoken critic of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Erdogan has accused Syria of arming the PKK in recent months.
Kisanak disagreed and said fighting with the PKK had flared before relations with erstwhile ally Syria soured.
"There is a tendency in Turkey to continually look for excuses to blame domestic problems on the outside," she said.
Erdogan has signaled that some BDP lawmakers, including Kisanak, could lose their immunity to prosecution, granted to all members of parliament, after they were photographed last month embracing PKK fighters who had stopped their convoy on a road in the southeast.
Courts have banned most of the BDP's predecessors for links with the PKK, and pro-Kurdish parties were out of parliament between 1994 and 2007.
"There is now a serious risk that parliament will debate our immunity, pushing Kurds outside of the political process," Kisanak said. "We need to keep the BDP, the Kurds, within politics to end the war and turn to dialogue and negotiations."