September 21, 2009 / 2:45 PM / 11 years ago

Turkey's top commander urges PKK to lay down arms

ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey’s top military commander on Monday called on Kurdish rebels to lay down their arms in a speech in the country’s mainly Kurdish southeast that coincides with government efforts to broaden rights of minority Kurds.

Chief of the Turkish General Staff Ilker Basbug addresses the war academy in Istanbul in this April 14, 2009 file photo. REUTERS/Osman Orsal/Files

In a step aimed at addressing grievances by Kurds who have long complained of political and cultural discrimination at the hands of authorities, a state theatre in the Kurdish southeast will stage a play partly in the once-banned Kurdish language for the first time in the European Union candidate country.

General Ilker Basbug, addressing troops in the city of Mardin, said Turkey was ready to “share its wealth” among all Turks to end a decades-long separatist conflict driven by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

“We cannot reach a solution with guns and blood. The only solution is that the terrorist organisation lays down its weapons,” Basbug said.

Although it was not the first time the army had called on the PKK to abandon violence, the timing and location were significant. Basbug’s conciliatory words come as Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted AK Party faces resistance from opposition parties as it pursues steps to expand Kurdish rights and create jobs in the poverty-stricken region.

The main opposition secularist party, which traditionally sides with the powerful military and accuses Erdogan of having a hidden Islamist agenda, has rejected a government initiative towards Kurds, arguing Turkey’s unity was at stake.

However, Basbug also warned the miltary will continue fighting the PKK, a group branded terrorists by Ankara, Washington and the EU.

Last week, the army requested an extension of the mandate to launch operations against PKK rebels in northern Iraq. The mandate, first approved by parliament in 2007, expires in October. Turkish media has said there is concern in Ankara that extending the mandate may harm the reform process.

EU MEMBERSHIP

Erdogan hopes that giving more rights to Kurds and boosting the economy in the southeast will help end a conflict than has hampered progress toward EU membership and has killed 40,000 people since the PKK took up arms in 1984.

Under EU pressure, Ankara has eased bans on Kurdish.

In a departure from the past, a state theatre in Diyarbakir, the largest city in mainly Kurdish southeast Turkey, will stage on Oct. 1 “Living Death”, a play partly in Kurdish about “honour killings” of women, Anatolian news service said.

The Kurdish language, which is related to Persian, was banned in Turkey until 1991. It is spoken by Kurds who make up about 17 percent of Turkey’s population of 71 million.

Earlier this year, state broadcaster TRT launched a Kurdish-language television station. Other government moves to ease restrictions on Kurdish include allowing state-run mosques to preach sermons in Kurdish.

The EU has said Turkey must improve the cultural and political rights of its minorities.

Writing by Ibon Villelabeitia; editing by Ralph Boulton

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