ABDULLAH Ocalan, the jailed leader of Kurdish rebels who has been held on a prison island since 1999, has outlined a peace plan in which his fighters would declare a ceasefire by March, then lay down arms, and begin retreating from Turkey in the summer.
Imprisoned on Imrali island near Istanbul, Ocalan has since October been discussing a deal with Turkey’s government to end a conflict that has killed 40,000 people since his Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) took up arms in 1984.
Under the plan, sent to Turkey’s main pro-Kurdish party as well as the PKK leadership, the rebels would begin a formal ceasefire on 21 March, the Kurdish new year, said the Sabah and Star newspapers yesterday, which are close to the government.
The PKK is estimated to have around 2,000 fighters in Turkey, with several thousand more in bases in northern Iraq.
Their withdrawal from Turkish territory under the plan would be completed by 15 August, the 29th anniversary of the start of a conflict that has destabilised Turkey and held back the development of its mainly Kurdish south-east.
The 20-page “road map”, handwritten by Ocalan, has not been published and the accuracy of the reports could not be confirmed. They said Ocalan was due to finalise it in mid-March.
The success of the process depends on Turkey passing reforms increasing the rights of a Kurdish minority numbering about 15 million – around 20 per cent of Turkey’s population.
Ocalan’s plan contained no demand for Kurdish autonomy, media reports said.
“Nobody should stand up and demand anything that is aimed at harming our national unity,” Turkish prime minister Tayyip Erdogan said.
“If they put down their weapons and leave our country, there are many places in the world they can go,” he said, adding his government was determined to end the conflict with the PKK, and saying he “would drink poison” if needed to achieve peace.
During his decade in power, Mr Erdogan has pushed through reforms boosting Kurdish cultural rights. But Kurdish politicians want wider moves, including new constitutional guarantees for the Kurds and more Kurdish language education.
Ocalan’s plan seeks recognition of Kurdish identity in the constitution and the strengthening of local administration – steps that would follow a PKK withdrawal – as well the release of thousands of Kurdish activists jailed pending trial on charges of links to the PKK, Sabah reported.
Mr Erdogan is taking a political risk with the process, given the strident opposition of nationalists to negotiating with a man they dub the “baby killer” and “monster of Imrali”.
Opposition to the process may also emerge among Kurds.
Selahattin Demirtas, leader of the Kurdish BDP party, sought to assuage worries on both sides.
He said: “Turks should not be worried that Turkey will be divided and Kurds should not be worried that they will not get their rights and freedoms.”
The PKK has sporadically declared unilateral ceasefires in the past, and in 1999 it withdrew its militants from Turkey. However, several hundred of its fighters died in clashes during that pullout and Mr Erdogan has said this would not be repeated.
The final part of the three-stage plan envisages the closure of PKK camps in Iraq and the return to Turkey of PKK members who have not been involved in armed attacks.
Comments from both sides suggest that fighters would not be given amnesty but would remain in exile.
The PKK took up arms in 1984 with the aim of carving out a Kurdish state, but subsequently moderated its goal to limited self-rule. It is designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the US and the European Union.
The militants have pledged allegiance to Ocalan but voiced caution about the prospects of rapid progress towards a deal, criticising continued military operations in south-east Turkey and northern Iraq, where thousands of the militants are based.