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PKK Cease-Fire a Balancing Act for Turkish Government

This week the Kurdish rebel group, the PKK, announced it is extending its cease-fire for a month. The PKK has been fighting the Turkish government for independence for 25 years in a conflict that has claimed 40,000 lives. The cease-fire followed statements by the government and president that they are committed to resolving the conflict.

The PKK said it will cease all offensive operations until July and only engage in what it called "defensive actions." It also called for the Turkish army to end all its major operations against them.

One PKK rebel leader, Murat Karayilan, said they have dropped their demand for Kurdish independence, and instead are seeking local autonomy. In response, the Turkish armed forces and government publicly rejected the cease-fire offer saying they do not negotiate with terrorists.

But a spokesman for the Turkish parliamentary foreign affairs committee, Suat Kiniklioglu, said there is a political consensus that acknowledges the need to address the grievances of the country's Kurdish population in a bid to resolve the 25-year conflict.

"We, as a government, are believing that right now there is an opportunity that could result in an historic solution of this problem. The armed forces, the government and the presidency have a very similar idea to what is the problem, all parties involved understand we should stop young people [from taking] up arms to go to the mountains and join the PKK," he said.

The Turkish government is expected to announce a series of reforms aimed at improving the lives of Turkish Kurds, which make up an estimated 20 percent of the population. Strict controls remain in force over the use of the Kurdish language, including a ban on its use in education.

In its drive to resolve the conflict, Ankara has changed its policy toward the semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdish administration in neighboring northern iraq.

Until recently Ankara viewed Iraqi Kurds with deep suspicion accusing them of providing support to the PKK.

But Kiniklioglu said Iraqi Kurds are seen by by the government as part of the solution not the problem.

"There is [a] different situation in northern Iraq, the way we as a government engage with northern iraq and also with Baghdad. There is also the fact the United States is going to withdraw from Iraq," he said. "And of course there is the talk of a big conference in Iraq that would also involve the PKK, and somehow find a way of rehabilitate the people in the mountains back into Turkey and some of them maybe the leadership all those involved in direct violence be sent some where else. But they would be cleared from northern Iraq," he added.

Despite Ankara's warming relations with the Iraqi Kurds, the Turkish government's efforts to end the conflict with the PKK does not extend to talks with Turkey's main pro-kurdish party the Democratic Society Party, the DTP.

The government said it will only engage in talks with the DTP when it condemns the PKK as terrorists. But analysts said the DTP may carry more political weight since it defeated the governing AK Party in last March's local elections.

Osman Baydemir, the DTP mayor of Diyarbakir, the main city in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast, said the government has to face up to the political reality if it wants peace.

He said everybody should respect the result of people's votes He said this brings a big opportunity for the DTP to help in the laying down of weapons and bringing a peaceful solution.

"You will not be able to achieve peace without the DTP," he added.

The government continues to reject such offers.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul is seen as the key to breaking the deadlock. Last month, he said ending the conflict was the number-one priority of Turkey. Being president he is not constrained by party politics and in a ground-breaking move he recently met with DTP leader Ahmet Turk.

But observers say the Turkish government will ultimately have to concede to such reforms as amnesty for PKK rebels. The Kurdish deputy for the ruling AK Party, Abdurrahman Kurt, acknowledged that it will be hard to sell both for the country and his party.

"At first you have to prepare the base, and this base is not just in this region you have to prepare the west part of Turkey at the same time and you have to make it clear the importance of the amnesty, why we need this amnesty and the importance of solving this problem," he said.

Such issues like an amnesty and talking with the country's main Kurdish party are seen by observers as key tests of the government's commitment to ending the 25-year conflict. The rewards of peace are huge politically and economically, but the government is also aware of the risks.