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Bullet Dodged In Turkey, But Kurdish Conflict Lingers

A possible humanitarian crisis was averted recently when hundreds of Kurdish inmates called off a 68-day hunger strike. Talks over more rights for the Kurdish minority are promised, but longstanding grievances and heavy loss of life suggest that the Kurdish issue will continue to be a drag on Turkey's regional ambitions.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Elsewhere in the region, Turkey's leaders are weighing their next steps after managing to avoid a humanitarian crisis. Hundreds of Kurdish inmates in Turkish prisons had been on a hunger strike for more than two months, until a controversial leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party called for the strike to end. The Turkish government has now promised to enter talks with leaders from the Kurdish minority. But longstanding grievances suggest that the Kurdish issue will continue to be a drag on Turkey's regional ambitions. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Istanbul.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: An estimated 35- to 40,000 people have died in the 28 years Turkey has been fighting the militant Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. Support among some Kurds for PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan is so intense that had he not called off these hunger strikes, hundreds of prisoners would have been willing to die.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN, DUCKS )

KENYON: Just days before the hunger strikes ended, a knot of Kurdish activists huddled around a barrel fire of scrap lumber, as children chased ducks through an Istanbul park. Waving the smoke from his eyes, Mesut Kilic said he had no doubt that his 19-year-old brother, Mehmet, was prepared to sacrifice himself.

MESUT KILIC: (Through translator) There are 47 other political prisoners with him, all on hunger strike. He says they're all ready to die for the Kurdish cause.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEMONSTRATION)

KENYON: Kurdish areas erupted in joyous demonstrations when the strikes were called off; and Turkey's justice minister said talks could be held with the PKK - a statement that not long ago, would have been political suicide in Turkey. Some of the Kurdish demands are seen as reasonable, by many Turks. The parliament seems poised to approve one - the right to use Kurdish, or other native tongues, in Turkish courtrooms. But Kurds are also demanding an end to Ocalan's isolation in an island prison, where he's been since his capture in 1999. After a failed Kurdish outreach effort a few years ago, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has stuck to a bellicose, nationalist stance. He recently said easing Ocalan's prison conditions was out of the question.

RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: (foreign language spoken)

KENYON: Don't think you can blackmail us, he says. We're not going to take the head terrorist from jail and send him home, just because you demand it or make some protest.

For decades, Turkey's sporadic but fierce fighting against PKK militants has complicated relations with its neighbors. And Erdogan's continuation of Kurdish policies that many see as discriminatory, has drawn criticism from the European Union and human rights groups. Now, analysts see a moment for progress on the Kurdish problem. But as always, there are complications. Ocalan's single-handed ending of the hunger strikes reaffirmed that 13 years in jail haven't diminished his leadership stature. But author and columnist Mustafa Akyol says bringing Ocalan out of isolation could be risky for the government.

MUSTAFA AKYOL: Allowing Ocalan to talk more to the PKK can be a bad thing, or a good thing. Ocalan can say to his followers, calm down, stop terrorism anymore; and that would be a good thing. But Ocalan can say well, press more on the Turkish government, do some more attacks.

KENYON: Thus far, Erdogan has refused to bend on Ocalan's imprisonment; even upping the ante, with a threat to reinstate the death penalty. Ocalan's death sentence was commuted to life in prison when Turkey abolished capital punishment, in 2004. Kurdish activist Mesut Kilic doubts Ocalan would be executed, saying that would bring chaos down on Turkey.

KILIC: (Through translator) There are 20 million Kurds living in Turkey. I would say there are 5 million like me - who would burn their bodies, if Ocalan is executed.

KENYON: The numbers may be exaggerated, but not the threat. When Ocalan was captured in 1999, there were several reports of young PKK supporters burning themselves, in protest. At a time when Turkey is preoccupied with the rising power of Syrian Kurds just across one border, and the continued attacks launched from Kurdish northern Iraq, analyst Hugh Pope wrote recently that the obvious first step would be to get Turkey's own Kurdish problem resolved at home.

KENYON: But that will take hard compromises, the kind that Turkey, and its Kurdish minority, may not yet be ready to make. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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