Turkish military will keep fighting Kurdish rebels

Jan 04, 2013, 11:10 AM EST
Turkish soldiers patrol near the strategic Syrian border town of Ras al-Ain on November 15, 2012.
AFP/Getty Images

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey will press ahead with military operations against autonomy-seeking Kurdish rebels even as Turkish officials hold talks with the rebels' jailed leader to end the 28-year-old conflict, officials said Friday.

Last week, the government confirmed that Turkey's intelligence agency was talking to rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan with the aim of convincing the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, to disarm. Ocalan has been serving a life sentence on a prison island off Istanbul since 1999.

Yet Turkish officials said Turkey had no intention of halting its military drive against the group, which took up arms in 1984 and is fighting for self-rule in southeast Turkey, often from bases in northern Iraq. The conflict has killed tens of thousands of people since then.

"Operations are continuing," Interior Minister Idris Naim Sahin told the state-run Anadolu Agency in an interview. "They will continue until members of the group who bear enmity against our people are no longer in a position to attack or shed blood."

Yalcin Akdogan, chief adviser to the Turkish prime minister, wrote in the Star newspaper Friday: "There is no question of suspending or halting the fight against terrorism."

"Security policies must remain as a complementary factor (to talks)," Akdogan wrote in a column.

Akdogan also warned that groups within the PKK who are opposed to any negotiated settlement to the conflict could "sabotage" the talks by attacking Turkish targets.

Turkey has admitted holding secret discussions with Ocalan and other PKK members, as recently as 2011, although officials later said the talks were abandoned when rebels killed 13 soldiers in southeast Turkey in July of that year.

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.

Turkish officials have not revealed details of the talks with Ocalan or what Turkey is offering the rebels as an incentive to disarm.

Nurettin Canikli, a senior legislator from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling party, said some progress had been made but would not say if the PKK was any closer to laying down arms.

Akdogan, the adviser, wrote that many PKK fighters were sick of life hidden away in the mountains of southeast Turkey or northern Iraq and suggested that the prospect of "coming down from the mountains" would be an incentive to disarm.