Hundreds of Kurdish militants ended a hunger strike in jails across Turkey yesterday after an appeal from their leader, fuelling hopes a deal had been struck that could revive talks to end a decades-old conflict.
Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan called on his supporters to end their protest after holding a series of talks with Turkish MIT intelligence agency officials, according to one media report.
Top MIT officials held secret meetings with senior PKK representatives in Oslo in recent years and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said in September more talks were possible.
More than 40,000 people have been killed in 28 years of fighting between Turkey and the PKK — designated a terrorist group by Ankara, the US and the EU.
Ocalan’s call for an end to the hunger strike, which militants staged to demand an end to his isolation in an island prison south of Istanbul, was announced by his brother on Saturday.
“On the basis of our leader’s call ... we end our protest as of Nov. 18, 2012,” Deniz Kaya, a spokesman for the jailed PKK militants, was quoted as saying in a statement by an association representing the inmates’ families.
A newspaper said yesterday talks between Ocalan and Turkish intelligence officials over the last two months had paved the way for his call.
“A delegation went to Imrali on three occasions. A senior MIT official joined one of these visits and Ocalan’s intervention was sought to end the hunger strike,” the liberal daily Radikal said.
It did not identify its sources.
Ocalan, imprisoned on Imrali island in the Sea of Marmara south of Istanbul since his capture in 1999, has significant support among Kurds, but is widely reviled by Turks who hold him responsible for the conflict since the PKK took up arms in 1984.
According to justice ministry figures, about 1,700 people had been taking part in the hunger strike, which ended on its 68th day.
There was no indication the hunger strikers’ demands had been met.
As well as end to Ocalan’s isolation and limited access to lawyers, they had demanded greater use of the Kurdish language in schools and other institutions.
Erdogan’s government has boosted Kurdish cultural and language rights since taking power a decade ago. However, Kurdish politicians are seeking greater political reform, including steps towards autonomy for mainly Kurdish southeastern Turkey.
Addressing one of the protesters’ demands, the government has submitted to parliament a bill allowing defendants to use Kurdish in court testimony.
Seven leading Kurdish politicians, mostly from the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), had joined the hunger strike over the last week.
“We hope this call will pave the way for the next process, which is to end [Ocalan’s] isolation ... The Kurdish problem should be resolved by dialogue and deliberation,” BDP leader Selahattin Demirtas told reporters late on Saturday.
Ocalan’s solitary confinement was eased in 2009 when five more inmates were brought to the island. His current situation is unclear but lawyers say he has no access to a telephone or television and his newspapers are censored.
The lawyers say the authorities have declined their requests to visit Ocalan 134 times since they last saw him on July 27 last year, usually blaming bad weather or breakdowns on the boat that would ferry them to Imrali.
Fighting between the PKK and Turkish forces surged over the summer. Ankara has linked the renewed hostilities to the conflict in neighboring Syria and accused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of arming the PKK.