ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey's prime minister apologized Wednesday for the first time for the killings of nearly 14,000 people in a bombing and strafing campaign to crush a Kurdish rebellion in the 1930s.
The apology by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was no big change of heart but a political tactic to tarnish the reputation of the opposition party, which was in power at that time. Still, comes at a tense time for relations between Turkey and its minority Kurds, and it sparked calls for Turkey to face another dark chapter of its history, the mass killings of Armenians in 1915.
Erdogan's government is currently fighting against autonomy-seeking Kurdish rebels and despite efforts to seek peace, says it is determined to crush the rebels if they don't lay down their arms.
The fighting has killed tens of thousands since it began in 1984, but it is only the latest of several uprisings by Kurds in Turkey's largely Kurdish southeast.
Erdogan on Wednesday offered his apology for the killings of 13,806 people in the southeastern town of Dersim — now known as Tunceli — between 1936 and 1939. The apology came after a war of words between Erdogan and the leader of the main opposition party.
An opposition lawmaker, Huseyin Aygun, from the Republican People's Party said a dozen of his relatives were killed in Dersim and added that details about the suppression of the rebellion needed to become known.
Erdogan's apology appeared aimed at embarrassing opposition party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, whose party was in power at the time of the rebellion. Kilicdaroglu's family is also rooted in Tunceli.
"Am I going to apologize or are you?" Erdogan asked Kilicdaroglu in a televised speech. "If there is need for an apology on behalf of the state, if there is such a practice in the books, I would apologize and I am apologizing."
Some ruling party lawmakers called for a probe into the Dersim slayings, where troops of Turkey's newly founded republic brutally crushed Kurdish clans that rejected central authority.
"Instead of looking for a culprit, we must chose to face history," government legislator Mustafa Elitas said.
Mustafa Armagan, a historian and researcher, told state-run TRT television on Wednesday that the military's campaign in Dersim was followed by forced migrations and massacres as well as policies of assimilation.
The prime minister also said one of the main obstacles to Turkey's becoming "one of the world's most powerful states is that it can't face up to its past, history, taboos and fears."
Turkey is also under pressure to acknowledge other dark pages in its history, including the mass killings of Armenians in 1915, a special wealth tax imposed on Jews in the 1940s and attacks on its Greek minority in 1955.
The killing of up to 1.5 million Armenians and their forced migration under the Ottoman Empire has been the main barrier to Turkey's reconciliation with Armenia. Armenians have long fought to persuade other governments to call the killings a genocide. Turkey rejects the term genocide, contending the figures are inflated and saying there were many deaths on both sides as the Ottoman Empire collapsed during World War I.
Despite the calls for search for truth over the Dersim incidents, Erdogan's government has said it would only halt its current military drive if the rebels of the Kurdistan Workers' Party or PKK disarm. However, the government has left the door open for future talks.
Turkey has long realized that it can't end the Kurdish rebel war through military measures alone, and the government has granted more cultural rights to the Kurdish minority such as broadcasts in the once-banned Kurdish language on state television.
But the rebels and Kurdish activists insist on autonomy and Kurdish education in schools, which Turkey fears could divide the country along ethnic lines.
Associated Press writer Suzan Fraser in Ankara contributed.