Kurdish Rebel Ceasefire Meets with Chilly Reaction in Turkey

ANKARA (AFP)–Turkish officials snubbed a decision by the rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) for a one-month ceasefire–as analysts predicted no breakthroughs in the conflict that continues to burden Ankara as it prepares for accession talks with the European Union.

The PKK’s decision to stop armed action until September 20 followed a landmark pledge by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week to resolve the Kurdish problem with "more democracy" and mounting calls by civic groups on the PKK to lay down arms.

Government officials refused to comment on the cancellation of a news conference by the PKK’s political wing KONGRA-GEL–which was scheduled to take place in Belgium. Kurdish sources–however–described the move as Turkish pressure on Belgium.

The PKK has fought Ankara since 1984–and is blacklisted as a terrorist group by Turkey as well as the EU and the United States.

"It is out of the question for us to comment on this issue," said Akif Beki–Erdogan’s spokesman.

A senior foreign ministry official–who requested anonymity–stated that "those people are terrorists and it is not possible for us to qualify their actions either as positive or negative."

Ankara has meticulously avoided any move that could imply recognition of the PKK.

"We will closely watch the developmen’s in this one-month period. We will give time to Prime Minister Erdogan’s well-intended efforts," KONGRA-GEL head Zubeyir Aydar told the pro-Kurdish MHA news agency.

The PKK has markedly intensified attacks on the army in the past several months since calling off a five-year unilateral truce in June 2004 on the grounds that Ankara did not respond in kind.

Turkish officials have also blamed the PKK for several deadly bomb blasts in Istanbul and tourist resorts–but the rebels have denied responsibility–putting the blame on a radical splinter group.

In Diyarbakir–the central city of the mainly Kurdish southeast–Kurdish activists who had urged an unconditional truce expressed disappointment with the one-month ceasefire but kept their hopes alive that it could help build confidence between Ankara and the rebels.

"The announcement falls short of our expectations–but a partial ceasefire will end the fighting and should be seen as a beginning–an opening for a resolution of the conflict," Mesut Bestas–a senior local politician–told AFP.

Analysts were less optimistic.

Political scientist Dogu Ergil said the PKK move was "political blackmail" aimed at extracting concessions from Ankara as it gears up for accession talks with the EU on October 3.

"The PKK has no genuine political agenda," he said. "Its real concern is to secure an amnesty for its militants and get [jailed PKK leader Abdullah] Ocalan out of prison."

Ismet Berkan–editor-in-chief of the Radikal daily–said the army was unlikely to stop cracking down on the PKK–which would give the rebels an easy pretext to renew armed action.

"It is inconceivable for the army to stop operations against militants up in the mountains who possess hundreds of kilograms of explosives and mines," he wrote in anticipation of the ceasefire announcement.

The conflict has claimed some 37,000 lives since 1984–when the PKK took up arms for Kurdish self-rule in the southeast.

The brutal state response led to gross human rights breaches on both sides and opened a wide confidence gap between Ankara and the Kurds–who make up about a fifth of Turkey’s 70-million population.

Anxious to boost its EU membership bid–Ankara has ended 15 years of emergency rule in the southeast and allowed the Kurdish language to be taught at private courses and used in public broadcasts over the past several years.

Even though the reforms are believed to have diminished popular support for the PKK–Kurdish activists say Ankara should further expand the minority’s freedoms.

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