The captured Kurdish rebel chief, Abdullah Ocalan, ordered his guerrillas today to end their armed campaign for self-rule in Turkey's largely Kurdish southeastern region.
Ocalan's call, relayed through his lawyers at a news conference in Istanbul, marked the first time he has formally urged his followers to abandon their bloody uprising against Turkish rule. Since Ocalan founded his independence movement in 1978, the fighting has killed more than 30,000 people, two-thirds of them rebels.
Analysts noted that Ocalan stopped short of asking the approximately 8,000 combatants of his Kurdish Workers' Party to lay down their arms and surrender to the Turkish state. Instead, he urged them to flee Turkey before Sept. 1. But even that marked a departure for Ocalan, they said, and set up a test of his influence within the rigidly doctrinaire organization now that he is behind bars and sentenced to death.
Turkish officials dismissed Ocalan's appeal as a further attempt to save his own life, saying they would never negotiate with "a terrorist."
Last June, a Turkish court sentenced Ocalan to hang, following his capture by Turkish special forces in Kenya in mid-February. Throughout his month-long trial for treason, held on a prison island south of Istanbul, Ocalan offered to use his influence over the party, called the PKK, to end the insurgency if his life were spared. Ocalan, 51, warned of further rebel violence if he were executed.
Ocalan's case is being reviewed by an appeals court that is expected to uphold the death sentence. The parliament and president must approve the sentence before it can be carried out.
In the statement read by his lawyers, Ocalan said: "I call upon the PKK to end the armed struggle and withdraw their forces to outside the borders of Turkey for the sake of peace from September 1, 1999."
"These are the words of a desperate man," said a top-ranking Turkish official speaking on condition of anonymity. "We know, and he knows, he can't deliver."
Ocalan's call came just hours after PKK rebels attacked a group of Kurdish villagers in the township of Silvan in Diyarbakir province, according to area reports. Six villagers, including two children, died when rebels opened fire on a minibus carrying the group home from a field they had been cultivating, the semi-official Anatolian news agency reported today.
The victims were believed to be the families of members of a Kurdish militia known as "village guards," which is allied with the government. Regarded as traitors, the guards are frequently targeted by the PKK.
The rebel high command denied responsibility for the attack, saying it was an "act of provocation staged by those who want the war to continue."
"It is no coincidence that the attack occurred just as our leader was calling for peace," the rebels said in a statement.
However, Kurdish sources close to the PKK said that reaction among the rebels to their leader's call was mixed. "Some believe today's announcement is the result of ongoing negotiations with the Turkish state, but many agree that [it] is probably to save his own skin," said a source close to the rebels, who was interviewed by telephone from Diyarbakir.
During his trial, Ocalan claimed that a number of earlier cease-fires he had called were the result of secret correspondence with various Turkish officials and politicians, including the former president, Turgut Ozal, and Turkey's first militant Islamic premier, Necmettin Erbakan, who was forced to step down by the military two years ago.
But Ocalan said the peace attempts failed because rogue elements within the rebel group had violated the cease-fires. Defying their leader's repeated calls for a cease-fire, the PKK has killed more than a dozen soldiers in the past month.
"With every Turkish soldier who dies," said the senior Turkish official, "the noose around Ocalan's neck gets even tighter."