ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday his government would never surrender to Kurdish militants but he was cautiously hopeful peace talks could end a conflict that has brought nothing but “pain, blood and tears” to Turkey.
Late last year Turkish intelligence officials began talks with jailed Kurdish militant leader Abdullah Ocalan on how to end an insurgency which has killed more than 40,000 people since rebels loyal to him took up arms in 1984.
The talks drew fierce criticism from nationalist circles which accused the government of going soft on Ocalan’s Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), designated a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the European Union and United States.
In a sign of Ankara’s continued hard line against the guerrillas, media reports said Turkish warplanes struck PKK targets in northern Iraq on Sunday and Monday, the first such attacks since details of the Ocalan talks emerged.
“Nobody can make us surrender. We did not take a step back in the face of any attack, we will not take any steps back,” Erdogan told his ruling AK Party in parliament in the capital Ankara.
“Violence and terror has brought nothing to this country but pain, blood and tears. Believe me, we have one goal: that is to halt the mothers’ tears,” he said.
“We are cautious, careful but hopeful.”
The nascent talks were overshadowed last week by the execution-style killings of three Kurdish women activists in Paris, which Erdogan has suggested could be the result of an internal feud in the PKK or a bid to derail the peace talks.
The PKK blamed shadowy elements within the Turkish state or foreign powers and Ocalan issued a call on Monday through his brother for French police to solve the murders. But he gave no indication their killing would disrupt the peace talks.
Ocalan’s younger brother Mehmet, who visited him in his jail on the island of Imrali near Istanbul, said the PKK leader did not comment on the peace process but may make a statement later if Kurdish political party leaders visit him.
Several Turkish jets attacked PKK forces in northern Iraq on Sunday in the first operation in 12 days and struck again on Monday evening, broadcaster CNN Turk said. It did not identify a source for the report, which could not be confirmed.
However the Firat news agency, which is close to the militants, reported the PKK as saying Turkish warplanes carried out a series of attacks in the region on Monday. It did not give details on any damage caused by the attacks.
Dialogue between Ocalan and government officials, which media reports say yielded a framework for full negotiations, began after Ocalan called on hundreds of PKK inmates to end a hunger strike last November. His brother Mehmet had conveyed that appeal after a previous visit.
“He was very saddened by the massacre in France. He condemns it,” Mehmet Ocalan told reporters on his return from Imrali late on Monday. “They must solve this massacre right away.”
“This massacre was a sign. Hence he was very downcast. He sent his condolences to the families of the three Kurdish women who were killed,” he said, without clarifying what the sign was.
French investigators have given no indication as to who might be responsible for the deaths.
Ocalan was long held in virtual isolation after his capture in 1999. Access to him remains tightly controlled and his lawyers have not seen him for 16 months.
Kurdish politicians have demanded improvements in his jail conditions. Erdogan said last week that such changes would be limited but that he would be given a television.
Asked about those reports, Mehmet said his brother had not requested a television. “It was not his own demand. The prison governor convinced him and that’s why he accepted,” he said.
One of the three women killed in Paris was Sakine Cansiz, a founding PKK member well-known to Kurdish nationalists and believed to be an important PKK financier in Europe. PKK fighters are based mainly in northern Iraq.
The bodies of the three were set to be flown to Diyarbakir, the largest city in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast, on Wednesday evening ahead of a funeral ceremony on Thursday.
Erdogan and other political leaders called for calm ahead of the funerals and warned against efforts to provoke trouble.
“Our sensible citizens won’t rise to the bait,” he said. “Some want to destroy the peace process we have begun. This must not be allowed to happen.”
Editing by Louise Ireland and Nick Tattersall