Page last updated at 15:13 GMT, Tuesday, 20 October 2009 16:13 UK

Turks and Kurds run risks for peace

By Jonathan Head
BBC News, Istanbul

Kurdish rebels near Iraq's border with Turkey, 19 October 2009
The Kurdish rebels insisted they were not surrendering

The border crossing by 34 Kurds from Iraq to Turkey on Monday might not seem much of an event, in a region plagued for decades by a conflict which has cost tens of thousands of lives.

But it was an important symbolic gesture, which might yet give vital momentum to an as-yet undetailed government peace initiative launched in August.

All day on Monday, Turkish news channels broadcast reports and pictures from the dusty border crossing at Habur. There was not much to see. Just a few dozen police with anti-riot equipment, and the white border-control building in the distance.

The scene on the other side of the border post, though, was much livelier. A group of men - some in military fatigues - women and children were being cheered and clapped as they pushed through a crowd of well-wishers, escorted by Turkish police.

Most had come from the desolate refugee camp at Makhmur, 150km (95 miles) inside Kurdish Iraq; while eight were from the Qandil Mountains, stronghold of the PKK, the armed movement which has been fighting the Turkish military for the past 25 years.

Acting under orders

Once inside Turkish territory, they were detained and questioned at the border post; 29 were quickly released; the remaining five released over the next 24 hours.

All could have been charged and jailed for being members of an illegal organisation, and in previous years they almost certainly would have been.

Funeral of Turkish soldier killed by PKK
Fighting between Turkey and the PKK is still taking lives on both sides

The reason this small group attracted so much media interest in Turkey is that they declared that their border crossing was a peace gesture, and a test of the government's willingness to bury the hatchet with the insurgents.

The 34 Kurds could have surrendered and renounced their loyalty to the PKK, and faced little risk of prosecution.

But they did not. They insisted they were not surrendering - and they made it clear they were acting under the orders of Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed PKK leader so demonised in Turkey that even to mention his name, or show respect to him, can result in a long prison sentence.

Almost exactly 10 years ago another group of eight Kurds tried the same tactic, also under the orders of Ocalan, who had been caught a few months earlier.

The eight were carefully chosen - none had been involved in armed clashes with the Turkish military. But back then the Turkish authorities showed no leniency. They were charged and given prison sentences as long as 22 years.

"We could have solved this years ago, in 1999, when Ocalan was captured", says Professor Ergun Ozbudun of Bilkent University in Ankara, "but we missed that opportunity."

Army complicit

This time should be different. On 11, August Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivered an emotional speech to parliament, calling for an end to the bloodshed and tears.

"Where else should we look for reconciliation but here?" he asked the MPs, citing the unbearable pain felt by mothers on both sides of the conflict who have lost sons.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Is it possible not to be hopeful when you look at the pictures from the Habur border crossing? Good things are happening in Turkey. This is hope
Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Turkish prime minister

He called his initiative a "Democratic Opening", likening the reforms needed to win over the Kurdish minority to the broader political reforms his government has promised as part of its bid to join the European Union.

Opinion polls suggest around half the public supports the peace plan, with the other half opposed, or unsure.

Crucially, the Turkish army appears to be going along with it, despite the deep mistrust of this government in senior military circles. Officially, the army takes a hard line against the PKK. But privately top generals have acknowledged that the Kurdish conflict cannot be solved through military means.

The PKK has also been weakened, following successful diplomatic efforts by Turkey to win the co-operation of the Kurdish regional government in Iraq, together with US military support, in going after the insurgents.

But Mr Erdogan has not spelled out what reforms he is seeking, although these are presumed to include more freedom of expression and education in the Kurdish language, and changes to the definition of citizenship in the constitution (which currently defines all citizens as "Turks").

Instead he has called on all parties in parliament to hammer out a reform package with him.

Such is the sensitivity of the issue, he wants the opposition to sign off on the package with him, even though his AKP Party has a parliamentary majority.

And the main nationalist parties, the CHP and the MHP, are not co-operating. They accuse the prime minister of negotiating with terrorists. So, for two months, Mr Erdogan's plan has stalled.

Risky move

That has given the PKK an opportunity to take the initiative. From his prison island Abdullah Ocalan has for months been promising to produce his own road-map for peace, although all anyone outside the prison has heard from him recently is complaints about his health.

But the decision to send the 34 Kurds across the border into the arms of the Turkish authorities, with Ocalan's blessing, has now put the insurgent group at the heart of the government's peace initiative.

It is a risky manoeuvre. He is so feared and disliked in much of Turkey that the government cannot risk being seen to negotiate with him.

But, in parliament on Tuesday, Prime Minister Erdogan could only look on the bright side.

"Is it possible not to be hopeful when you look at the pictures from the Habur border crossing yesterday?" he asked. "Good things are happening in Turkey. This is hope".

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