A PKK fighter looks across the border into Turkey. Photo: AFP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Turkey’s historic peace process with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has struck its first hurdle: The government insists the deadly rebels disarm before leaving the country, and the guerrillas want pardons and other legal guarantees before laying down arms.
Turkey’s Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), the intermediary for Ankara’s highly significant talks with the jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, says comments by the Turkish premier, ruling out pardons for fighters or house arrest for their leader, were not helpful.
“The terrorists, who are about to leave Turkey, have to bury their weapons in caves” before being allowed to leave for their main base in the Qandil Mountain of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Region, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters last week.
“They can cross the border of our country only after laying down their arms,” he clarified.
Turkey is at a historic crossroads in its three-decade war with the rebels, which has claimed an estimated 70,000 lives nationwide. Following groundbreaking talks that Ankara opened this year, Ocalan said in a March 21 message on the Kurdish New Year that the militants were ready to disarm.
In a message read to hundreds of thousands of Kurds in their city of Diyarbakir in southeastern Turkey, Ocalan vowed that the PKK was beginning a new struggle, to be waged in the battleground of politics.
The 65-year-old Ocalan, who has been kept in virtual isolation on Turkey’s Imrali island since being captrued in 1999, said that the process of disarmament must be governed by law.
“The Turkish government must take the necessary legal measures in the Turkish parliament for the withdrawal of the PKK guerrillas," he said.
Observers say that the PKK wants legal protections and pardons for its fighters, and perhaps that Ocalan can be placed under house arrest from the prison where he has been condemned for the rest of his life.
Erdogan ruled out pardons for PKK fighters or house arrest for their leader, quashing any suggestions of a legal process. “Ocalan’s house arrest is out of the question,” said the prime minister, whose government is hoping for success in resolving the Kurdish issue, which for decades has been Ankara’s largest internal problem.
Shortly after Erdogan’s comments, the PKK insisted on “legal grounds” for withdrawal, and expressed discontent with Erdogan describing its fighters as “terrorists.”
BDP co-leader Gultan Kisnak said that the peace talks were the outcome of months of hard work, and Erdogan’s statements were not helpful.
“The statements by Erdogan do not suit the spirit of the peace process,” she added, warning that Erdogan “should not do anything to harm the process."
"Only new laws can guarantee the success of this process,” Kisnak explained. “Promises made today can be forgotten tomorrow, that is why the entire process must be carried out legally.”
Erdogan’s own Justice and Development Party (AKP), insists that the premier’s comments were only indicating the first step of the peace process, and struck at the very heart of the issue.
“The PM says that he will do everything necessary for rights and freedoms, but that disarmament should be the first step,” said Ziver Ozdemir, a ruling party MP from the city of Batman in Turkish Kurdistan.
“This is not a war between two countries, requiring a legal process for disarmament to take place,” Ozdemir explained. “The laying down of arms is the proof of the desire for peace.”