Kurd leader says chances for peace 'greatly increased'

Jailed Kurdish rebel chief Abdullah Ocalan voiced hope for peace in Turkey after a three-decade Kurdish insurgency, in a message to thousands of supporters to mark his birthday on Thursday.

"Chances for honourable peace have really greatly increased," the 64-year-old leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) said in a message penned from his island prison cell.

He said the peace process could lead to the "rebirth of a people," referring to the Kurdish community which makes up about a fifth of Turkey's 75-million population.

More than 20,000 Kurds gathered in his hometown of Omerli in the Kurdish-majority southeast to celebrate their leader's birthday, chanting "Freedom for Ocalan".

For the first time at mass rallies for his birthday, Turkish security forces did not intervene.

Ocalan called on March 21 for his fighters to lay down their arms and withdraw from Turkish soil in a breakthrough announcement after months of clandestine negotiations with the Turkish secret service aimed at ending the Kurdish rebellion.

The PKK's armed campaign for self-rule has killed some 45,000 people, mostly Kurds, since 1984 and the group is considered a terrorist organisation by Ankara and its Western allies.

On Thursday, Ocalan urged his people, rich or poor, young or old, male or female, to be involved in the peace process.

"I hope there will no single drop of blood as the process evolves," he said.

Previous attempts at ending the insurgency were crippled after splinter groups within the PKK torpedoed efforts or Ankara backtracked because of opposition from nationalist groups.

Ocalan, who was born in 1949 in Omerli according to official records, is serving a life sentence in an isolated island prison in the Marmara Sea south of Istanbul following his capture in Nairobi in 1999.