ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — In a major step toward ending one of the world's longest, bloodiest insurgencies, the Kurds' jailed rebel leader called Thursday for a "new era" of peace that includes an immediate cease-fire and the withdrawal of thousands of his fighters from Turkey.
Abdullah Ocalan's rebel group, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, has been waging a nearly 30-year battle against the Turkish government, seeking autonomy and greater rights. The fight has killed tens of thousands of people and the group is considered a terror organization by Turkey and its Western allies, including the United States.
The Turkish government reacted cautiously but Ocalan's announcement at a Kurdish spring festival was met with joy from the hundreds of thousands who gathered to hear it in Diyarbakir, the largest city in Turkey's mainly Kurdish southeast.
"We have reached the point where the guns must be silenced and where ideas must speak. A new era has started, where politics, not guns, are at the forefront," Ocalan said in a call from jail relayed by pro-Kurdish legislators in both Kurdish and Turkish.
"A door is opening from the armed struggle toward the democratic struggle," Ocalan said. "This is not an end. This is a new start."
"We have reached the stage where our armed elements need to retreat beyond the border," his message added.
People in the sprawling crowd sang, danced and waved rebel flags or banners with images of Ocalan. They appeared cheered at the prospect of an end to the conflict that has dominated the southeast for so long.
"Ocalan has paved the way for a historic peace process," said Mesut Yegin of Istanbul's Sehir University. "He has declared in no uncertain terms that the era of an armed struggle is ending."
"But the total laying down of arms will depend on steps the government will take," Yegin added.
Turkey announced in December that it was talking to Ocalan with the aim of persuading the PKK to disarm.
Despite his 14-year incarceration in a prison island off Istanbul, Ocalan still wields great power over his rebel group. PKK commanders based in northern Iraq have declared support for the peace initiative and Kurdish fighters in Turkey were expected to heed Ocalan's call and retreat to northern Iraq.
Earlier this month, the rebels released eight Turkish soldiers and officials they had been holding captive in response to a request by Ocalan.
Nevertheless, Turkish officials sounded a note of caution Thursday.
"I see (the call) as a positive development, but it is its implementation that is important," Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said during a visit to the Netherlands. "We need to see to what extent (the rebels) respond to it."
He added that Turkish security forces would cease operations against the rebels after the PKK fighters withdraw.
The Turkish leader also lamented the fact that no Turkish flag was flown at the festivities, calling it a "provocative act" contrary to the spirit of Ocalan's message of unity.
Kurdish rebels have declared cease-fires in the past, but these were ignored by the state, which had vowed to fight the PKK until the end. Erdogan's government has admitted to having held failed, secret talks with the PKK in past years, but this latest attempt — held more publicly and with Ocalan's greater participation — has raised hopes for a successful negotiated settlement.
Government officials have warned of possible attempts to "sabotage" the talks by groups opposed to the peace initiative. Erdogan suggested that attacks this week on the Justice Ministry and the headquarters of his ruling party — which wounded one person — may have been an attempt to undercut the peace process.
In a poignant reminder of the precarious nature of the initiative, a sign posted at the spring festivities read: "We are ready for (both) peace and insurgency."
Kurds make up an estimated 20 percent of Turkey's population of 75 million. The rebels took up arms in 1984 to fight for Kurdish independence, but later revised that goal to autonomy in southeastern Turkey. The group frequently launched attacks on Turkey from bases in northern Iraq.
Ocalan's message did not include a time frame for his fighters' retreat, suggesting that the Kurds may be expecting the government to take some confidence-building steps in the interim.
Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin, however, suggested earlier this week that the Kurdish withdrawal could be completed by the end of the year.
As part of the peace efforts, the government is expected to boost the rights of Kurds through reforms, including a more democratic new constitution that is likely to underscore equal rights for Kurds and could increase the power of local authorities. Kurds are also seeking the release of hundreds of Kurdish activists jailed for alleged links to the PKK as well as improved jail conditions for Ocalan, who is serving a life prison term.
Some Kurds believe Ocalan should be freed as part of the peace deal.
"A democratic solution and freedom for Ocalan," read one poster at the festival.
"As long as Ocalan is not free, peace would be a mistake," read another.
A key demand by the PKK is a guarantee that its estimated 4,000 fighters will not be attacked during any retreat. Erdogan has said he is open to the creation of an independent committee that could oversee the withdrawal of the rebels.
Turkish forces reportedly attacked PKK guerrillas as they retreated in 1999 while obeying orders from Ocalan who had appealed for peace soon after his capture that year, as well as during another unilateral decision to withdraw in 2004.
The peace efforts follow a surge in violence last summer that killed hundreds of people. It also comes as a Syrian Kurdish group linked to the PKK has gained control in several areas of war-torn northern Syria, adding to Turkey's worries. Many believe Turkey's conflict with the PKK is hampering its ambitions to become even more of a regional leader.
A deal with the PKK could also give Erdogan key support from Kurds for his goal to replace Turkey's political system with one that gives more power to a popularly elected president. Erdogan is widely believed to want to run for president next year.
Erdogan's government has carried out a series of reforms that have increased the Kurds' cultural rights, including broadcasts and classes in Kurdish. More recently it changed laws to allow Kurds to defend themselves in their own language in court.
"We have sacrificed decades for the (Kurdish) people. We have paid a huge price," Ocalan said in his speech. "None of it was in vain. The Kurds gained their self-identity."
The spring festival, or Newroz — which means "new year" — is mainly marked by Kurds in Turkey. It is also celebrated in Iran, where it is called Nowruz, and in some countries in Central Asia.
Kurdish demonstrators in the past have used the celebration to assert Kurdish demands and many events have resulted in violent clashes with Turkish security forces.
Suzan Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey.