Turkey PM meets Iraqi Kurdish leader to shore up peace talks

Turkey's prime minister welcomed the leader of Iraq's autonomous north to his country's own Kurdish-dominated territory for the first time Saturday, in a visit designed to kickstart a stalled peace process.

Tens of thousands of Kurds turned out to watch Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan greet Iraqi Kurdish leader Massud Barzani in the Kurdish heartland of Diyarbakir in southeastern Turkey.

Barzani has visited the capital of Ankara many times but Saturday's meeting was described by Erdogan as "historic" and a "crowning moment" in overcoming a three-decade conflict with the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

Addressing the huge crowd, Erdogan said: "The peace process will progress with the support of my brothers in Diyarbakir."

"How have Turks and Kurds been able to tear each other apart? Turks and Kurds should no longer tear each other apart," he said in a half-hour speech, calling for an end to a conflict that has claimed some 45,000 lives.

Standing by his side was Barzani, whose influence among Turkey's Kurds Ankara hopes will bring them back to the negotiating table.

"I ask, on behalf of my Kurdish and Turkish brothers, that the peace process is supported," said Barzani.

Jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan called a landmark ceasefire in March but progress in the peace process has since stalled. His fighters suspended a promised withdrawal from Turkish soil in September, accusing Ankara of failing to fully deliver on promises to give the minority group greater rights.

The Turkish army reported on Friday that one of its convoys had for the first time in months been attacked, allegedly by PKK rebels in the southeastern Nusaybin district on the Syrian border.

Thousands of rebels remain holed up in the autonomous north of Iraq, using the region -- which is under Barzani's control -- as a springboard for attacks on Turkish targets.

But Barzani told AFP that Kurds should use non-violent means to gain the homeland they believe they deserve.

"Having our own state is the natural right of the Kurdish people, but that cannot be achieved through violence," he said.

Reforms not enough

Turkey's "Kurdish question" has been a thorn in Ankara's side since the modern republic was founded in 1923 with a constitution that failed to recognise its Kurdish population as a separate minority.

The Kurds, a distinct Sunni Muslim people, make up an estimated 20 percent of Turkey's population or around 15 million people, but are also scattered across Iraq, Iran and Syria.

Certain prominent Kurds have criticised Barzani's visit as an opportunistic gesture ahead of Turkey's municipal elections in March 2014.

"Barzani's participation in the kick-off of the prime minister's campaign is highly suggestive," said the leader of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party in Diyarbakir, Mehmet Emin Yilmaz.

But others were more optimistic, with respected Kurdish lawmaker Leyla Zana saying the talks with Barzani were motivated by "hope".

Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) passed a package of reforms in September designed to give Kurds and other groups extra rights, but these failed to grant Kurds any constitutional recognition.

Syria's civil war, which has seen Kurdish forces make significant territorial gains against jihadists, will also feature heavily in the talks between Erdogan and Barzani.

Barzani's visit comes just days after the powerful Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) declared a new transitional authority in Syrian Kurdistan.

The move has worried Barzani's government, while Turkish President Abdullah Gul warned it risked "the break-up of Syria".

Kurdish regions of Syria have been administered by local Kurdish councils since forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad withdrew in the middle of 2012.

The redeployment was seen as a tactical move by Damascus to free up forces to battle rebels elsewhere and encourage Syrian Kurds to avoid allying with the opposition.

Energy deals will also be on the agenda during Saturday's talks. A number of oil contracts signed between Ankara and Arbil, which has sent crude across the border to Turkey, have irked Baghdad, which says that any such contracts agreed without its consent are illegal.

Turkey, which is seeking closer ties with the Iraqi government as well, has offered to mediate in the dispute.