ISTANBUL (AP) – Turkey marked 25 years Saturday since the first Kurdish rebel attacks, with political leaders calling for reconciliation, though the government has yet to offer a new plan for ending the conflict.
Fighting has died down since the 1990s, but the Kurdish conflict remains a drag on Turkey’s drive to modernity and an obstacle to the country’s joining the European Union.
The fighting began on Aug. 15, 1984, when separatist rebels attacked police and military units in the southeastern towns of Eruh and Semdinli before fleeing to bases in northern Iraq.
Since then, some 40,000 people have died as the rebels seek autonomy for Kurds concentrated in Turkey’s southeast.
Kurdish activists held a festival Saturday in Eruh, where extra security forces were deployed.
Speakers appealed for peace, and crowds listened to traditional music at an open-air concert.
Parliament Speaker Mehmet Ali Sahin called for reconciliation with the country’s Kurdish minority. “I see a great advantage in putting aside all prejudice,” he said on Turkish television, dismissing nationalist claims that allowing Kurds to have more rights would “divide Turkey.”
Interior Minister Besir Atalay met delegates of 20 non-governmental organizations in Ankara as part of a government effort to rally support for a peace plan that has yet to be announced.
Imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan is expected to release his own peace proposals soon through his lawyers.
On Friday, the prime minister said the “time has come for a radical solution» for ending the conflict, and urged the nationalist opposition to back the effort. “Turkey has to face this problem and solve it through democracy,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said. “We will take steps at any cost.”
The question of how to persuade thousands of rebels to give up their weapons remains in deep dispute. Demands of the rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, include amnesty for its top leaders, but such a deal would infuriate many Turks.
Late Friday, a blast in a trash container killed a night watchman and injured another person in a poor neighborhood of Istanbul.
Istanbul Police Chief Huseyin Capkin said explosives caused the blast, but said it was unclear if it was an act of terrorism. Kurdish militants have carried out attacks to mark the anniversary in past years, but radical leftist and Islamic groups have also staged bombings.
Turkey has taken some steps to assimilate Kurds, who account for about 20 percent of the population of 75 million and dominate the country’s southeast. In January, the first 24-hour Kurdish-language television station was launched, and Erdogan spoke a few words in the once-banned tongue.
“In the southeast, the problems are not only psychological, sociological. Here, we have military, political, diplomatic problems. Economic problems,” Turkey’s Dogan news agency quoted Erdogan as saying Saturday.
To facilitate peace with Kurds, the government must work to overcome objections from the nationalist opposition.
Nationalist Action Party leader Devlet Bahceli said the PKK were criminals seeking to divide Turkey along ethnic lines.
“The problem of terrorism has become the Kurdish problem,” he said.
Rebels initially sought a separate state, but their political platform has evolved to demands for more cultural and democratic rights for a minority that has long faced state discrimination.
Critics say more must be done to make Kurds feel like real citizens, rather than an alienated minority, and to elevate Turkey into the ranks of stable democracies.
The Kurdish plight is a key issue in Turkey’s troubled bid to join the EU, and a history of human rights violations have shadowed the nation’s efforts to play the role of regional model and mediator.
In the past year, however, Turkey has hosted indirect talks between Syria and Israel, won acclaim for criticizing Israel for Palestinian civilian deaths in the Gaza war, and hosted Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as well as European leaders separately for talks on proposed pipeline projects to ferry energy supplies to the West.
Turkey is also a NATO member and key U.S. ally that has contributed troops to Afghanistan and coordinated with Washington on the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Its navy is involved in anti-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden. But the Turkish government has yet to provide details of a promised Kurdish peace initiative.
Ruling party lawmakers have said the government could rename thousands of Kurdish villages that have Turkish names, expand Kurdish-language education and remove references to “Turkishness” in defining citizenship.
Turkey and the West view the PKK as a terrorist group.