Diyarbakir: Tens of thousands of Kurds gathered in southeastern Turkey on Saturday to hear a message from jailed militant leader Abdullah Ocalan, expected to reaffirm his commitment to a peace process despite a war of words with Ankara.
President Tayyip Erdogan, then prime minister, launched talks with Ocalan in late 2012 to end a three-decade insurgency that has killed 40,000 people, ravaged the region`s economy and tarnished Turkey`s image abroad. Progress has been faltering since then, but Kurdish faith in Ocalan remains undiminished.
Young men in green guerrilla outfits and women in brightly coloured dresses danced as patriotic Kurdish songs played over a sound system at the Kurdish "Newroz" New Year celebrations in Diyarbakir, the largest city in the mainly Kurdish southeast.
Large screens each side of a stage showed Ocalan`s face while many in the crowd waved the flags of his Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militant group, deemed a terrorist organisation by Ankara, the United States and the European Union.
"We`re celebrating now but we`ve suffered thousands of martyrs, massacres, mystery killings, destroyed villages," said Ekrem Baran, 50, among the crowd.
"We support the peace process and expect the Kurdish people to bring peace. They are the hope of the Middle East," he said.
The mere display of Kurdish insignia, let alone an image of Ocalan, could have brought arrest and imprisonment less than a decade ago.
At the same event two years ago, Ocalan, jailed since 1999 on an island near Istanbul, declared a ceasefire and said in a written declaration it was "time for guns to fall silent and for politics to be spoken".
His fighters began withdrawing to Iraq two months later under a deal envisaging increased rights for Kurds, who make up around 20 percent of Turkey`s 78 million population.
The PKK halted the withdrawal in September 2013, blaming government footdragging. The ceasefire has largely held but distrust runs deep, exacerbated by the perception among Kurds in Turkey that Ankara has done too little to support their brethren fighting against Islamic State militants in neighbouring Syria.
Tensions are also running high ahead of a June parliamentary election. Kurds voiced angered at Erdogan`s recent denial there was a "Kurdish problem", accusing him of seeking to woo the votes of nationalists strongly opposed to the peace process.
The leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtas, this week dismissed speculation over "dirty bargaining" with the ruling AK Party over the process, rejecting the notion his party would support Erdogan`s goal of a powerful executive presidency in return for Kurdish rights.
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu condemned those comments as “disrespectful to democracy”.
Despite the hostility, the process has been edging forward. Government ministers recently appeared together with an HDP delegation to discuss Ocalan`s peace proposals, which include PKK disarmament.
The PKK took up arms to carve out an independent Kurdish homeland in the southeast in 1984. Their now scaled-back demands include autonomy for local governments, Kurdish-language education and the overhaul of security-related laws.