ANKARA: Turkey's pro-Kurd party yesterday hailed government-led talks with jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan as a "right step" but called for a halt to detentions and military operations against rebels before full-fledged negotiations can begin.
"It is a right step. It is a rational and reasonable step that was taken in such a critical process," Selahattin Demirtas, co-chairman of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), told his party lawmakers in Parliament.
"But we cannot talk of a full-blown negotiation process at this stage; we are not there yet," Demirtas said.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan revealed late last month that Turkey's intelligence services had talks with Ocalan, which an aide said concerned disarming the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).
The aide, Yalcin Akdogan, said that Ocalan remains "the main actor" in efforts to resolve the three-decade old Kurdish conflict, which has claimed some 45,000 lives.
Demirtas demanded the release of Ocalan, the imprisoned PKK leader, or the easing of his detention conditions. "But if military operations and detention (of Kurdish activists) continue ... there is no point in pursuing this process," Demirtas said, adding that all parties to the conflict be included, including the political wing of the PKK.
Demirtas's remarks came after two prominent Kurdish politicians visited Ocalan in prison on the island of Imrali south of Istanbul, the first such visit since his incarceration in 1999. Details of the closed-door meeting were not made public, but the government's green light for the visit was perceived as a sign that negotiations were in motion to end the conflict.
After more than a decade behind bars, Ocalan is still a respected figure for a majority of Turkey's Kurds, although his influence among PKK hawks is believed to have diminished.
The PKK, listed as a terrorist group by Ankara, the United States and the European Union, took up arms in the Kurdish-majority southeast in 1984 in a quest for autonomy there.
Ankara initiated clandestine peace talks with prominent rebel figures in 2009 but they failed.
12 Kurdish rebels ‘killed’
Meanwhile, Turkey's state television reported yesterday that Turkish troops have battled Kurdish rebels in southeast Turkey, in fighting that left 12 rebels and a soldier dead despite peace talks aimed at ending the 28-year-old conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people.
A group of rebels, infiltrating from northern Iraq, attacked a military post near the border with long-range weapons late Monday, killing one soldier and wounding two others, TRT television reported. The military says it fired back on the rebels killing at least 12.
Last month, government officials said Turkey's intelligence agency was holding talks with the rebels' imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan, with the goal of pressing the group to disarm. Ocalan's Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which took up arms in 1984, is fighting for self-rule for Kurds in southeast Turkey. The group often launches attacks from bases in neighboring northern Iraq.
Officials have given few details about the talks, but the government said Turkey had no intention of halting its fight against the PKK until the rebels were "no longer in a position to attack," even as the dialogue continued. Turkish officials have said that the group has in the past used lulls in fighting to recoup.
The fighting in Hakkari province comes days after Yalcin Akdogan, chief adviser to the Turkish prime minister, warned that factions within the PKK opposed to any negotiated settlement, could attempt to "sabotage" the talks by launching sensational attacks.
Turkey has admitted holding secret discussions with Ocalan and other PKK members before, although officials said the talks were abandoned when rebels killed 13 soldiers in southeast Turkey in 2011.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has ruled out any amnesty for PKK fighters or the possibility of a house arrest for Ocalan, who has been serving a life sentence on a prison island off Istanbul since 1999.
The latest peace effort comes after hundreds of Kurdish prisoners linked to the PKK heeded a call from Ocalan in November and abandoned a hunger strike pressing for greater Kurdish rights and improved prison conditions for the rebel leader. The incident demonstrated Ocalan still holds sway over the rebels even after 13 years of being in prison.
The negotiations also coincide with efforts by parties in Parliament to draft a new constitution for Turkey, which the government says would safeguard the rights of minority Kurds, who make up some 20 percent of the country's 75 million population.