DIYARBAKIR, Turkey (AP) — The jailed Kurdish rebel leader called Thursday for an immediate cease-fire and for thousands of his fighters to withdraw from Turkish territory, a major step toward ending one of the world's bloodiest insurgencies.
Hundreds of thousands were gathered to hear the message in Diyarbakir, the largest city in Turkey's mainly Kurdish southeast, where Abdullah Ocalan's rebel group has been waging a 30-year battle against the Turkish government for autonomy and greater rights.
Though there was a cautious response from the Turkish government, the announcement at a Kurdish spring festival was met with joy from the crowd. People sang and danced, waved rebel flags and banners with images of Ocalan and cheered at the prospect of an end to a conflict that has cost tens of thousands of lives.
Turkey announced in December that it was talking to Ocalan with the aim of persuading his Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, to disarm. The group is considered a terror organization by Turkey and its Western allies.
In his message read by pro-Kurdish legislators in the Kurdish and Turkish languages, Ocalan said: "We have reached the point where the guns must be silenced and where ideas must speak. A new era has started, where it is politics, not guns, which is at the forefront."
"We have reached the stage where our armed elements need to retreat beyond the border," Ocalan's message continued.
Despite his 14-year incarceration in a prison island off Istanbul, Ocalan still wields power over his rebel group. PKK commanders based in northern Iraq have declared support for the peace initiative and the fighters were expected to heed Ocalan's call.
Nevertheless, Turkey's Interior Minister Muammer Guler sounded a note of caution.
"The language was one of peace (but) we must see how it is implemented," the state-run Anadolu Agency quoted Guler as saying.
Kurdish rebels have declared cease-fires in the past but these were ignored by the state, which vowed to fight the PKK until the end. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government has also admitted to having held failed, secret talks with the PKK in past years, but this latest attempt — held more publicly and with Ocalan's greater participation — has raised hopes for a successful negotiated settlement.
Government officials have warned of possible attempts to "sabotage" the talks by groups opposed to the peace initiative. Erdogan on Wednesday suggested that attacks this week on the Justice Ministry and the headquarters of his ruling party — which wounded one person — may be an attempt to hurt the process.
In a poignant reminder of the precarious nature of the initiative, a sign posted on a podium set up at the venue of the festivities read: "We are ready for (both) peace and insurgency."
Ocalan's message did not include a time frame for his fighters' retreat, suggesting that the Kurds may be expecting the government to take some confidence-building steps. Turkish Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin suggested earlier this week that the withdrawal could be completed by the end of the year.
As part of the peace efforts, the government is expected to boost the rights of Kurds through a series of reforms, including a more democratic new constitution that is likely to underscore equal rights for Kurds and could increase the power of local authorities. Kurds are also seeking the release of hundreds of Kurdish activists jailed for alleged links to the PKK as well as improved jail conditions for Ocalan who is serving a life prison term on an island near Istanbul.
But many Kurds believe Ocalan should be freed as part of the peace deal. "A democratic solution and freedom for Ocalan," read a poster. "As long as Ocalan is not free, peace would be a mistake," said another.
A key demand by the PKK is guarantees that its fighters would not be attacked during any retreat. Erdogan has said he is open to the creation of an independent committee that could oversee the withdrawal of an estimated 4,000 rebel fighters, initially to 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.
"A door is opening from the armed struggle toward the democratic struggle," Ocalan said. "This is not an end this is a new start."
"We have sacrificed decades for the (Kurdish) people. We have paid a huge price," Ocalan added. "None of it was in vain. The Kurds gained their self-identity."
The spring festival, or Newroz — which means "new year" — is mainly marked by Kurds in Turkey. Kurdish demonstrators in the past have used the celebration to assert Kurdish demands and many events have resulted in violent clashes between participants and Turkish security forces.
In a gesture in support of the peace efforts meanwhile, the families of Turkish soldiers and Kurdish rebels killed in the conflict assembled around a "reconciliatory" dinner table in the southeastern province of Sanliurfa on Wednesday, news reports said.
Kurds make up an estimated 20 percent of Turkey's population of 75 million. The rebels took up arms in 1984 to fight for Kurdish independence but later revised that goal to autonomy in southeastern Turkey. The group frequently launches attacks on Turkey from bases in northern Iraq.
Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey.