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Thursday, 21 March 2013

The first step of the peace process: a PKK ceasefire

What happened this morning is quite extraordinary.

The imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), Abdullah Öcalan, released a message calling for peace in southeast Turkey.

Tens of thousands of people turned out in Diyarbakır to hear it.

The message, to mark the Kurdish new year of Nowruz, was read out in Kurdish and Turkish.

The PKK leader called for his organisation's armed militants to retreat across the border back into northern Iraq. He did not ask them to disarm. 

Police were heavily present at the event, but there were no major disturbances.

Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was grumpy that only Kurdish flags – and no Turkish star-and-crescent – was flown at the rally. His interior minister said he "violently condemned" that omission.

But the mood of the prime minister, who is visiting the Netherlands today, was generally accommodating. He described Abdullah Öcalan's call on militants to leave Turkey as "a positive development" and added he was waiting to see whether it would be obeyed. If it is, he said, the military operation in the region would "end of its own accord".

The governing AK Party's cautious optimism was met with outrage from the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) and utter silence from the Republican People's Party (CHP).

The MHP leader, Devlet Bahçeli, was scathing: "We do not recognise the Nowruz in Diyarbakır. A Nowruz celebrated in this manner is not this nation's festival. A celebration without the Turkish flag cannot contain messages of brotherhood and unity. The Turkish nation is watching this scenario as a lesson of disgrace.

"This," he continued, "is the beginning of separatism."

CHP MPs, meanwhile, have been ordered by their leader not to comment in the media.

A ceasefire was always going to be only the first step in a long and difficult peace process. But that does not make it any less significant. A Turkey that no longer deploys troops against its own citizens will be a stronger, freer one.

It is important not to forget that previous ceasefires have been declared and all have fallen through. This one needs to stick.

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