The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) is ready for a new ceasefire with the Turkish authorities despite almost three months of deadly violence, one of its leaders told AFP in an interview at its stronghold in northern Iraq.
The PKK, which since 1984 has waged an armed struggle for autonomy and greater rights for Kurds in Turkey, declared a ceasefire in March 2013.
But it ripped up the truce in July this year, accusing the Turkish authorities of collaborating with Islamic State (IS) jihadists in Syria, allegations Ankara vehemently denies.
The Turkish authorities say over 140 members of the security forces have been killed in PKK attacks since and have hit back with a relentless bombing campaign against the group.
“We are ourselves ready for a ceasefire from right now,” Cemil Bayik told AFP in an interview in the group’s stronghold of the Qandil mountains of northern Iraq.
But Bayik — who along with Murat Karayilan is considered the PKK’s top commander on the ground in the absence of its jailed chief Abdullah Ocalan — warned of a drastic PKK response if Turkey continued its military campaign.
“If the Turkish government continues with its logic of war, whether we want it or not, other cemeteries will fill up and the conflict will extend to all of Turkey, Syria and the Middle East,” Bayik added.
Dressed in the grey battle fatigues favoured by Kurdish militants and with a picture of Ocalan pinned into his lapel, Bayik accused President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of being to blame for the violence.
“We don’t want war. We have tried to go down the political and democratic path to move the dialogue forwards,” said Bayik.
“But Erdogan held up the process,” Bayik complained. “He made us believe that there was a dialogue. But his aim was to delay it as he never believed in it.”
Bayik, 64, said he still had hope of a peaceful solution, saying time had shown that violence was no way out.
“If it was possible to solve this problem through war, then it would have been solved long ago,” he said.
– ‘Self defence’ –
The upsurge in violence has raised fears of whether there can ever be a final peace deal to end Turkey’s conflict with the PKK, which has claimed 40,000 lives.
But Bayik denied that the PKK was to blame for the flare-up, saying it was only acting in “legitimate self defence”.
“All the guerilla movement is doing is to protect itself, it has still not entered into a war,” he said.
“What we see are young people stepping into the fray to protect themselves and the people and democracy.”
The Turkish authorities, by contrast, accuse the PKK of being bloodthirsty “terrorists” who have killed scores of young police and soldiers simply because they are in uniform.
Official Turkish media say some 1,740 PKK members have been killed in the military’s air strikes in southeast Turkey and northern Iraq.
But Bayik rubbished the suggestion that the death toll was anything on this scale. “It’s just lies. As of now, we have lost 70 martyrs.”
Meanwhile, he said that the Kurdish movement had been boosted by its involvement in the fight against Islamic State (IS) jihadists in northern Syria, a campaign backed by Europe and the United States.
But the rebels in northern Iraq still live undercover, suspecting Turkish drones are watching them from the sky and awaiting the next air raid.
These remote mountains represent their base, with portraits of Ocalan everywhere and Kalashnikov-touting fighters checking traffic at the entry to every village.
– ‘Help the HDP’ –
The PKK’s resumption of its campaign of violence also came at a critical political moment in Turkey.
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Erdogan lost its overall majority in June 7 elections largely due to the success of pro-Kurdish forces.
After it failed to form a coalition, Turkey is now facing snap polls on November 1.
Bayik accused Erdogan of reigniting the conflict with the PKK in revenge for the loss of the AKP’s majority in the elections.
But he suggested that the PKK could be ready to declare a ceasefire ahead of the elections with the aim of helping the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) again score a strong result.
“For democracy to advance in the Turkish Republic, it is necessary to help the HDP. We have already done this and we will do it again,” he added.
The HDP, which won 80 seats in the June 7 polls, is seen by some analysts as the political wing of the PKK although the party denies this is the case.
The PKK is listed as a terror group not just by Turkey but also the United States and the European Union.
“If the international community removes the PKK from the list, Turkey will be forced to accept the reality of the Kurdish problem and will accept dialogue,” said Bayik.