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PKK Ready to Lay Down Arms - 2002-03-20

The leader of a main Iraqi Kurdish faction in northern Iraq said Wednesday that a Turkish Kurd rebel group is ready to lay down its arms in exchange for a general amnesty for its fighters.

Jalal Talabani, the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, said rebels of Turkey's outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, are prepared to give up their armed campaign for Kurdish independence and lay down their weapons - if the Turkish government grants a full amnesty for their fighters.

Mr. Talabani, who is in Ankara for talks with Turkish officials, said the PKK leadership is undergoing what he terms a dramatic change. These include changing their name and redefining their strategic goals.

The PKK waged a 15-year campaign against Turkish government forces for the establishment of an independent Kurdish state carved mainly out of Turkey's largely Kurdish-populated southeast region.

But the group declared a unilateral cease-fire in 1999 following the capture of its leader Abdullah Ocalan. Ocalan, who was sentenced to death on treason by a Turkish court, ordered his men to withdraw from Turkey to Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. He also said his group has renounced its campaign for Kurdish statehood and is willing to settle instead for cultural autonomy for Turkey's estimated 12 million Kurds.

The PUK leader, Mr. Talabani, has said about 5,000 PKK fighters are scattered throughout Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. More than half are believed to be in the rugged mountains bordering Iran that are under the control of Mr. Talabani's faction. The PUK leader is widely believed to have met with PKK commanders based in his region and is seeking to mediate between the rebels and the Turkish government.

Many Kurdish politicians describe the PKK's newly conciliatory policies as Turkey's best chance to achieve a lasting peace with its restive Kurdish population.

Turkey's military and political leaders have repeatedly said, however, they will not negotiate with the PKK, labeling the group terrorists.

Turkey says only PKK members who were not directly involved in the insurgency that has claimed over 30,000 lives can be expunged for their deeds.

Mr. Talabani's mediation bid comes one day before the March 21 Kurdish New Year, known as Newroz. Security throughout Turkey's largely Kurdish southeastern provinces has been beefed up ahead of the event, that often has been marred by bloody clashes between Turkish security forces and Kurdish revelers staging street celebrations without official permission.

The PUK leader's contacts in the Turkish capital also follow a visit by U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, who sought Turkey's views about a possible U.S. military intervention to overthrow Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Mr. Talabani on Wednesday echoed Turkey's concerns, saying such action could further destabilize the region. Mr. Talabani said the Iraqi Kurds will support change in Iraq only if the new government is fully democratic - one that would recognize the political and cultural rights of Iraq's estimated four-million Kurds.

Northern Iraq has remained outside Baghdad's control since the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. That is when the U.S. led coalition declared a no-fly zone over northern Iraq to protect the Kurds against possible attack by Iraqi government forces.