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In A Long And Bloody War, A Potential Breakthrough

NPR icon by Greg Myre
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Kurdish rebels have been fighting for nearly three decades against Turkish forces in the southeast corner of that nation. But the most prominent rebel leader said from prison Thursday that it was time for a "new era" that includes an immediate cease-fire.

Abdullah Ocalan heads the Kurdistan Workers Party, the PKK. He was captured by Turkey in 1999 and has been imprisoned on an island off Istanbul.

"We have reached the point where the guns are not at the forefront," Ocalan said in a message relayed by his supporters in Diyarbakir, the main city in Turkey's southeast, The Associated Press reported.

"A door is opening from the armed struggle toward the democratic struggle," he added. "This is not the end. This is a new start."

The rebel leader also said that the PKK fighters, estimated at around 4,000, should retreat and leave Turkey. The rebels often go back and forth across the border between southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq.

In the past, cease-fires have collapsed, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed a note of skepticism.

"I see [the call] as a positive development, but it is its implementation that is important," Erdogan said while on a visit to the Netherlands. "We need to see to what extent [the rebels] respond to it."

The PKK was originally seeking independence, but later called for autonomy and greater rights.

Tens of thousands of Turks have died in the fighting since the uprising began in 1984, with most of the casualties in the southeast, where the Kurds are concentrated. They make up about 15 million of Turkey's 75 million people and have long complained of discrimination.

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