Ocalan calls for PKK talks to end four-decade armed struggle(UPDATED)

DIYARBAKIR: The jailed leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan, sought to maintainprogress in Turkey’s precarioussettlement process with the Kurdson Saturday, repeating his call for a PKK congress to discuss laying down arms and begin an “era of peace.”

“History and our people are demanding from us a democratic solution and peace in line with the spirit of the age,” Ocalan said in a letter read out to a crowd of tens of thousands attending Nevruz celebrations in the southeastern province of Diyarbakir. “We are entering an era of living in peace and brotherhood,” Ocalan said in the message, read out both in Kurdish and Turkish by two politicians from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

Ocalan said the PKK’s three-decade armed campaign was not in vain but added that it has reached an “unsustainable” level, calling for a PKK congress to determine its “political and social strategy in harmony with the spirit of the new period.”

The PKK leader’s 2-page letter came as part of a settlement process, which consists of secret talks between Ocalan in his prison in Imrali island off Istanbul and state officials, particularly representatives from the National Intelligence Agency (MIT).

The message is a confirmation of a call by Ocalan in late February on the PKK to convene a congress to discuss laying down arms on the basis of a 10-article declaration that sets out a rather vague steps for democratization of Turkey and resolution of the Kurdish issue.

Some had expected Ocalan to set out a timetable for the PKK congress in his Nevruz message but the PKK leader mentioned no date. He also suggested that the Turkish government should take the steps outlined in the declaration.

Ocalan’s call for peace came against a backdrop of tensions in the run up to the June 7 parliamentary elections.

Kurdish politicians criticized Erdogan for recent remarks in which he denied there was a “Kurdish problem,” accusing him of seeking to appeal to the nationalist voters who are opposed to the settlement process.

At a congress in Ankara that coincided with Nevruz celebrations in Diyarbakir and other southeastern provinces, leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) Devlet Bahceli accused the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and the PKK of collaborating in a scheme of “treason” to divide the country and vowed to resist it.

In another sign of increased tension, HDP Co-Chairman Selahattin Demirtas vowed to never allow Erdogan to assume greater executive powers under a presidential system he covets.

Critics accuse Erdogan and the Kurds of collaborating to bring about a constitutional overhaul that would pave the way for transition to a presidential system in return for autonomy for the Kurds and freedom for Ocalan.

Demirtas denied being part of any “dirty bargain” with the AK Party and said Erdogan can never be the president under a presidential system as long as the HDP existed.

Tensions also appeared to emerge between Erdogan, who first initiated the settlement process in 2012, and the government over the planned establishment of a monitoring committee to observe the talks between the Turkish state and Ocalan.

Erdogan expressed opposition to the planned move despite a government statement that the committee will soon be established, drawing an unprecedented response from Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc who said on Saturday that the government was in charge of the settlement process and is determined to go ahead with the establishment of a monitoring committee as agreed upon as part of the process.

Ocalan declared a ceasefire in his Nevruz message in 2012 and the PKK members began withdrawing from Turkey to the PKK bases in northern Iraq, raising hopes for a permanent solution to the decades-old conflict that killed tens of thousands of people.

But the PKK halted the withdrawal in September 2013, accusing the government of not keeping its promises. The ceasefire has largely held but distrust runs deep, exacerbated by the perception among Kurds in Turkey that Ankara has done too little to support their brethren fighting against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in neighboring Syria.