From the rubble of a devastating earthquake, Turks are seeing glimmers of hope that a much longer-running catastrophe -- a bloody, 15-year insurgency by Kurdish separatist rebels that has cost more than 30,000 lives -- could be nearing an end.
Moves toward resolving the conflict have gathered momentum over several weeks and seemed to accelerate today when the rebels announced that they have begun withdrawing from the country a week earlier than promised. They called the decision a goodwill gesture in the aftermath of last week's earthquake.
Although it was unclear where the rebels would go, the announcement by the Kurdish Workers' Party, known as the PKK, added to the growing pressure on the Turkish government to seize what many analysts say is the best chance in years to end the conflict and address longstanding demands by Turkey's Kurdish minority for greater cultural and political rights.
Since a Turkish court decided in June to sentence Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan to death by hanging after his conviction on treason charges, the rebels have made a series of overtures to Ankara. These include a call for an end to the insurgency, which has been aimed at winning Kurdish self-rule in southeastern Turkey, and a pledge that they would transform themselves into a political movement.
Over the past year, the rebels have been subjected to sharp military setbacks at the hands of a vastly superior Turkish army, lost the support of Syria, their longtime patron, and suffered the arrest of Ocalan, their charismatic leader. Analysts here say the rebels recognize that abandoning their fight and taking their cause to the political arena will increase popular pressure on the Turkish government -- both at home and from abroad -- to address the Kurdish issue. In its statement, the PKK did not say where its withdrawing forces would go, although the group has bases in northern Iraq and Iran.
Although Turkish officials have been dismissive of the PKK's peace offers so far, analysts say the government is beginning to recognize that it must change its approach in dealing with the country's 12 million Kurds. Even hawks within the Turkish establishment are questioning the wisdom of wasting what may be the best chance yet of ending an insurgency that is costing the economically strapped government at least $8 billion a year and has damaged Turkey's reputation abroad for years.
"The Kurdish problem lies at the root of all the problems Turkey faces both at home and abroad," said Sukru Elekdag, Turkey's former ambassador to Washington and a proponent of allowing broadcasting and education in the Kurdish language, both of which are now banned. "Yet Turkey does not have a consistent or all encompassing strategy or plan to solve it."
Said Ferai Tinc, a commentator for the conservative daily newspaper Hurriyet: "The equation we are faced with can be summed up as: `Violence is coming to an end. Now it is Turkey's turn to make a move.' "
Pressure from Turkey's Western allies is mounting, too. Turkey's desire for full membership in the European Union is "very much linked to progress on human rights and the Kurdish issue," said a senior European diplomat. Even Turkey's chief Western ally, the United States, which assisted in Ocalan's capture by Turkish special forces in Nairobi last February, is making it clear it would like to see better treatment of the Kurds.
Using some of the toughest language ever by a visiting U.S. official, Harold Hongju Koh, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, said at a news conference here this month: "Most Kurds in Turkey . . . want to remain Turkish citizens, while enjoying the basic human rights guaranteed to all people under international law, including freedom to express one's language and culture and freedom to organize political parties that represent their interests.
"Far from hurting Turkey's territorial integrity, an inclusive policy that acknowledged these rights would strengthen the Turkish state by giving the Kurdish community a genuine stake in their country's future." The Kurdish issue is expected to come up when Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit meets with President Clinton in Washington next month.
A Turkish court sentenced Ocalan to death by hanging on June 29 for his leadership of the Kurdish uprising. Parliament and the president must ratify the sentence, which is under review by an appeals court. Throughout his month-long trial, Ocalan, 51, offered to use his influence with the PKK to end the insurgency if his life were spared.
The government's initial response has been to brush aside Ocalan's offer as a desperate bid to save his own skin. "We do not negotiate with terrorists," Ecevit has said. The Turkish army has pursued its offensive against the PKK and says it has killed 24 rebels in sporadic clashes this week.
Ecevit's uncompromising stance contrasts sharply with what analysts describe as unprecedented government overtures toward the country's largest legal pro-Kurdish party and its efforts to push through democratic reforms.
"I am feeling hopeful for the first time . . . that things may be changing for the better," said Feridun Celik, who was elected mayor of Diyarbakir, the largest city in the southeast, on the pro-Kurdish People's Democracy Party (Hadep) ticket last April.
Celik was among a group of Kurdish mayors who took part in a groundbreaking first meeting with Turkish President Suleyman Demirel this month.
"Talks with our president has sent a very positive signal to our region and to those Turkish officials who shunned us all this time," Celik said in an interview. "He demonstrated that the Turkish state respects the will of all its citizens, including those who elected us."
Last Tuesday's earthquake elicited an outpouring of support and sympathy to Turkish victims from Kurds, who suffered enormous losses in a devastating earthquake in southeastern Turkey in 1939. Kurds donated blood, clothing and food for victims and sent doctors and volunteers to the quake zone, just east of Istanbul. In what many are taking as an attempt to respond to Demirel's overture, the spontaneous relief effort was encouraged by leading Hadep mayors in cities and towns in the predominantly Kurdish southeast.
Hadep is facing government disbandment on charges that it is "acting as the political wing of the PKK." Thousands of party members, including chairman Murat Bozlak have been detained, arrested or in many cases allegedly tortured and beaten after staging demonstrations in support of Ocalan after his arrest.
But parliament this month approved legislation that drastically limits bans on political parties and their leaders, raising hopes among Hadep officials that their party will not be shut down.
Mehmet Ali Irtemcelik, Turkey's minister in charge of human rights, says that legislation enabling thousands of Kurds displaced by the fighting to return to their villages -- together with laws to combat torture and to ease curbs on freedom of expression -- are a priority for his government.
But the proposals are facing stiff opposition from members of the ultra-nationalist, right-wing Nationalist Action Party, which is the junior partner in Ecevit's ruling coalition. The party is lobbying for Ocalan's execution and is resisting passage of an amnesty law aimed at encouraging PKK rebels holed up in the rugged Kurdish mountains to turn themselves in.
Analysts say the position embraced by Turkey's influential military leaders will prove crucial. "Unless these laws are enacted," Celik said, "our hopes for a just and lasting peace will fade as rapidly as they came."