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After decades of war, Kurdish party calls for dialogue in Turkey

By Ben Brumfield, CNN
updated 4:40 PM EDT, Thu March 21, 2013
Kurdish rebel chief Abdullah Ocalan in Masnaa on the Lebanon-Syria border on 28 September 1993.
Kurdish rebel chief Abdullah Ocalan in Masnaa on the Lebanon-Syria border on 28 September 1993.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Letter from imprisoned leader of Kurdish militant group is read in Turkish Parliament
  • NEW: "The guns must be silent and ideas must talk," writes Abdullah Ocalan
  • Kurds have tried to separate from Turkey for almost 30 years
  • The Kurdistan Workers' Party, known as the PKK, is a Marxist separatist movement

(CNN) -- For almost 30 years, Abdullah Ocalan called for his people to wage war against the Turkish state.

On Thursday, the imprisoned founder of the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party made a historic call for dialogue with the government, as a letter from Ocalan was read in the Turkish Parliament.

"We for tens of years gave up our lives for this stuggle, we paid a price. We have come to a point at which the guns must be silent and ideas must talk," said the letter, read by Sirri Sureyya Onder of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, known as the BDP.

"I say in the witnesss of millions, a new period is beginning -- one in which not the gun, but politics is in the lead," the letter continued. "I say we have come to a point at which our armed elements should pull out of the borders. This is not giving up our struggle, it is about starting a new phase of struggle."

Turkish journalist: It's a new day
Kurds in Turkey appeal for peace
Iraqi Kurds worry about future

After decades of bloodshed from both sides that have cost tens of thousands of lives since 1984, there have been other recent signs of reconciliation.

READ: How Paris killings could renew Kurdish flashpoint

In his ten years in power, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has loosened restrictions on expressions of Kurdish culture, which were forbidden for decades as being un-Turkish.

Hostages released

Over a week ago, Kurdish rebels handed over eight Turkish hostages in northern Iraq in a gesture of good will.

READ: Kurdish separatists release 8 Turkish hostages

"This shows that there can be a democratic solution to the Kurdish issue," said Adil Kurt, a Parliament member from the BDP. He went to Iraq to help pick up the hostages and bring them back to Turkey.

The Kurdistan Workers' Party -- known by its initials in Kurdish, PKK -- is expected to begin leaving Turkish territory. It could announce that its armed wing will eventually lay down its weapons.

Counterdemands are not yet known, but the PKK in the past has insisted upon collective rights as an ethnic group, which are anchored in a new constitution, as well as a degree of autonomy in governing Kurdish areas.

Kurds are a nation without a nation. The ethnic group, with its own languages and customs, straddles the borders of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Kurds are a sizable minority and make up nearly 20% of the population of Turkey.

READ: Can Turkey seize the 'Kurdish card' for itself?

The bloody conflict

Starting in 1984, Ocalan called for the PKK to carry out bloody attacks in retaliation against cultural suppression, particularly attempts to stamp out the Kurdish language. His ultimate goal has been the formation of a Kurdish state in Turkey's rural southeast, which has a predominantly Kurdish population.

The campaign resulted in countless bombings, armed attacks, and hunger strikes. Kurdish protesters demanding autonomy have also often set themselves on fire in public places.

The PKK, which has a Marxist-Leninist philosophy, at first carried out attacks in rural areas but moved into cities in the 1990s and expanded to include Turkish diplomatic interests in Western Europe, according to the U.S. State Department.

By 1998 it counted up to 15,000 guerrillas and had thousands of sympathizers in Europe.

The PKK also bombed hotels and kidnapped tourists to damage Turkey's booming tourism industry, the State Department said.

Human rights organizations have accused Turkish security forces of summarily executing Kurds and allowing others to die in custody, as well as the additional killings of thousands of Kurds.

Human Rights Watch has called for the prosecution of those involved.

After the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein in neighboring Iraq, ethnic Kurds in Turkey's north have gained more autonomy and prosperity. The PKK has operated out of the region.

Iraq refused the Turkish government's requests to intervene. Turkey's military has gone after rebel pockets in Iraq's north with aerial shelling.

The Turkish government has declared the PKK a terror organization, as has its ally the United States.

CNN's Gul Tuysuz contributed to this report

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