DIYARBAKIR, Turkey: Jailed Kurdish rebel chief Abdullah Ocalan called Thursday for a ceasefire, telling militants to lay down their arms and withdraw from Turkish soil, raising hopes for an end to a three-decade conflict with Turkey that has cost tens of thousands of lives.
“We are at a stage where guns should be silenced,” Ocalan said in a letter written from his isolated island prison cell and read out to a vast crowd in the mainly Kurdish southern city of Diyarbakir by a Kurdish lawmaker.
“We are at a stage where our armed elements should withdraw from Turkey,” said the leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), adding that it was “time for politics to prevail”.
The ceasefire call caps months of clandestine peace talks between Turkey’s spy agency and the state’s former nemesis Ocalan, who has been serving a life sentence for treason on Imrali island off Istanbul since 1999.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Ocalan, branded a “baby killer” by many Turks, both appear to have staked their political futures on the renewed push to end the 29-year armed campaign for self-rule that has killed some 45,000 people, mostly Kurds.
Erdogan has said he was putting his faith in the peace process “even if it costs me my political career”, in the face of charges by the nationalist opposition that he was guilty of “treason.”
The peace talks were launched last year after a dramatic upsurge in attacks by Kurdish militants against Turkish security forces.
Ocalan’s announcement was timed to coincide with Kurdish New Year, or Newroz, and hundreds of thousands of people gathered for celebrations in the Kurdish-majority city of Diyarbakir in southeastern Turkey.
“We will wake up to an actual New Day, the Newroz of the new era tomorrow,” prominent Kurdish lawmaker Selehattin Demirtas said on Twitter on Wednesday.
From the early hours, people from across Turkey had poured into the main square in Diyarbakir, adorned with red, yellow and green Kurdish flags, to hear Kurdish lawmakers read Ocalan’s letter both in Kurdish and Turkish.
“I believe in peace,” said Ahmet Kaplan, an elderly farmer from a village near Diyarbakir. “I have a son in the mountains and one in the army. It has got to stop, we need an end to mothers’ tears.”
A giant placard above the stage in Diyarbakir read “Democratic solution, freedom for our leader Ocalan” as thousands waved banners chanting “In peace as in war, we are with you, chief!”
“The light of Newroz burning for peace,” declared the headline in the mainstream Sabah newspaper, headline, referring to a celebratory ritual where young men jump over flames in a sign of courage and fertility.
“Turkey will turn a new page on the historic Newroz, the most critical junction in the peace process,” it said.
A solution to Turkey’s ingrained Kurdish problem could etch Erdogan’s name in history, in much the same way the abolition of slavery enshrined Lincoln’s memory for Americans a century ago, wrote Murat Yetkin, editor-in-chief of the Hurriyet Daily News in February.
Ocalan — known as “Apo” or uncle to Kurds — has said he wants peace for the “democratisation of entire Turkey”.
The ceasefire call is likely to be in return for wider constitutional rights for the up to 15 million Kurds in Turkey, as well as the release of thousands detained over links to the PKK, which is regarded as terrorist group by Ankara and its Western allies.
Ocalan is likely to call for monitoring commissions to ensure safe passage for fighters withdrawing into northern Iraq, despite assurances by Erdogan that “nobody will be hurt”.
The ceasefire will also test Ocalan’s influence over the PKK after years of being cut off from the outside world since his jailing in 1999.
At least four previous ceasefire attempts called by Ocalan were rejected by Ankara or torpedoed by hawkish rebel groups, triggering increased violence in the country.
Asked if the new peace process would be successful, Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin told reporters “there are no guarantees”.
In a sign of goodwill, the PKK last week freed eight Turkish prisoners it had been holding hostage for some two years.
Under Erdogan, in power since 2002, the Kurdish minority has been granted more cultural and language rights but further reforms were dropped in the face of a nationalist backlash.