ANKARA, Turkey – Turkey's prime minister said he hopes this week's spring festival, which is celebrated by Kurds, will herald the start of a peaceful resolution of the country's nearly 30-year-old conflict with Kurdish rebels.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan spoke Tuesday ahead of Thursday's spring Newroz festivities, when jailed Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan said he would make a "historic call" toward peace. Kurdish officials have said Ocalan is expected to reveal his road map for peace, including a possible cease-fire declaration and a timetable for his fighters' retreat from Turkey.
Turkish officials have been holding talks with Ocalan on his prison island off Istanbul with the aim of persuading his autonomy-seeking group to disarm. The conflict with Ocalan's Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, has killed tens of thousands of people since 1984.
"May this Newroz bring hope, may Newroz, so to say, be the insemination of the process for a solution," Erdogan told lawmakers in parliament.
Turkey has admitted to holding failed, secret peace talks with the PKK before. The latest initiative is being carried out more publicly and follows a surge in violence last summer that killed hundreds of people.
The government has said the rebel group would lay down arms and withdraw several thousands of fighters from Turkey's territory as part of the peace efforts, but has not revealed what steps Turkey will take.
Erdogan ruled out any "bargaining, concessions, back-stepping" or steps that would "hurt" the families of the violence's victims.
"Whatever step we take, we take it for (the welfare) of the people and the country," Erdogan said.
The PKK is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and Europe and Ocalan is serving a life sentence for leading the insurgency. He said in a message relayed by Kurdish legislators on Monday that he would outline all the "military and political steps" of the peace process on Thursday.
But Ocalan also suggested that Turkey's parliament needed to take steps to advance the peace process.
Kurds want the government to carry out reforms that would increase Kurdish rights. The Hurriyet newspaper said Ocalan was also seeking guarantees that his rebel fighters would not be attacked as they withdraw from Turkey to bases in northern Iraq.
Turkish forces reportedly attacked PKK guerrillas as they retreated in 1999 while obeying orders from Ocalan who had appealed for peace soon after his capture that year, as well as during another unilateral decision to withdraw in 2004. The PKK has declared unilateral cease-fires on several occasions in the past but they were ignored by the state.
Turkey's Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin said the rebels' withdrawal would likely start this month and continue to the end of the year.