ISTANBUL, TURKEY — Kurdish politicians were ferried to a Turkish prison island on Monday where Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan is expected to issue a ceasefire call in a conflict that has cost 40,000 lives and battered Turkey's economy over three decades.
Ocalan, captured by Turkish special forces in Kenya 14 years ago, has been holding talks with the government since late last year. Truces have been agreed and failed before in the war, but this is the first time Ocalan and a Turkish prime minister have openly spoken of talks on a comprehensive settlement.
Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin said he expected the withdrawal of Kurdistan Workers Party [PKK] guerrillas to bases in northern Iraq to be completed by the end of 2013, Milliyet newspaper reported Monday.
In exchange for the ultimate disarming of the militants, Turkey would strengthen the political rights of the country's Kurds who account for some 20 percent of its population of 76 million, according to Ocalan's plan.
In an initial confidence-boosting step, the PKK last week released eight Turkish captives which it had been holding at its bases in northern Iraq for up to two years.
On Monday, a delegation of the Peace and Democracy Party [BDP] made no comment before leaving to see PKK chief Ocalan on Imrali island in the Marmara Sea.
The island has long associations with the more turbulent chapters in Turkey's history. After a military coup in 1960, prime minister Adnan Menderes and two other senior ministers were hanged there.
The ceasefire call by Ocalan, whose death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment after his trial on Imrali, was expected to be announced at celebrations now under way to mark the Kurdish new year festival of Newroz on March 21. Those rites have in the past been marred by clashes between protesters and Turkish security forces.
Mountains of Iraq
The PKK had originally fought for an independent state to be carved out of southeastern Turkey, but have more recently moderated their demands to greater autonomy and cultural rights for Kurds. In the course of the conflict investment in the area has slumped and poverty has increased, putting a strain - beyond the human losses - on the Turkish economy as a whole.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has said he seeks peace in the southeast, but will respond to any hostile actions by the PKK, which is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union, as well as Ankara.
A BDP delegation previously met Ocalan in late February and since then the PKK leadership in northern Iraq and Europe have responded to his draft peace plan, which he was expected on Monday to finalize with a timetable.
Rebel PKK commander Murat Karayilan said last week the PKK supported Ocalan's peace efforts, but communicated its misgivings about the process in a letter responding to him.
The BDP is a legal party with 29 parliamentarians made up overwhelmingly of ethnic Kurds focused on Kurdish issues.
The PKK says it keeps about half of its 7,000 fighters in Turkey and half in northern Iraq, where it maintains its main camps in remote, nearly impassable mountains. Turkish authorities estimate the number of rebels to be lower.
Apart from hampering economic growth, the conflict has scarred Turkey's human rights record and has posed a major obstacle to membership in the European Union.
Ocalan is serving a life sentence for treason. He still holds sway over the PKK despite long isolation on Imrali and is considered a hero by nationalist Kurds.
Ocalan still pushes for safeguarding Kurdish rights, demanding a "truth commission" in parliament to examine Kurdish rights violations in Turkey.