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Iraq cabinet meets in Kurdistan to defuse tensions
by Staff Writers
Arbil, Iraq (AFP) June 09, 2013

Jailed Kurdish rebel chief backs Turkey protests
Istanbul (AFP) June 08, 2013 - Jailed Kurdish rebel chief Abdullah Ocalan on Friday voiced his support for the anti-government protests in Turkey, despite his involvement in peace talks with the Turkish authorities.

"To me the resistance movement makes a lot of sense and I salute it," Ocalan said in a message.

His words were read out by an official from Turkey's main pro-Kurdish political party, the BNP following a visit to the Imrali island prison where the Kurdish rebel chief is serving a life sentence.

Ocalan warned the protesters, who are calling for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to go, not to let their movement be overtaken by Turkish nationalists, CNN-Turk reported on its website.

Erdogan said Friday his Islamic-rooted government was open to "democratic demands" as he hit back at EU criticism of his handling of a week of deadly unrest.

Turkey's trouble began when police cracked down heavily on a peaceful campaign to save Istanbul's Gezi Park, spiralling into nationwide demonstrations against Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), seen as increasingly authoritarian by the protesters.

Last week Kurdish rebels shot at a Turkish army base on the country's border with Iraq, prompting soldiers to return fire, in the first reported hostilities since a March ceasefire.

The PKK rebels have been leaving Turkey in groups under a peace deal Ankara reached with their leader Ocalan who is serving his life sentence in an isolated island prison in the Marmara Sea south of Istanbul following his capture in Nairobi in 1999.

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.

Iraq's premier led a landmark cabinet meeting in the country's Kurdish region on Sunday to defuse tensions linked to a multitude of disputes that diplomats warn are among its biggest threats to stability.

The long-running rows have provoked sharp exchanges between the two sides, and while no tangible measures were agreed at the meeting, the mere fact that talks took place was seen as a positive sign.

Violence meanwhile has been rising to levels not seen since 2008 as the Shiite-led government has struggled to head off months of protests by Iraq's Sunni minority, which analysts say has given militant groups fuel and room to manoeuvre on the ground.

Following Sunday's cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said he and Kurdish regional president Massud Barzani did "not have a magic wand to fix all these problems in one go."

"But it is necessary to have a willingness to solve them," Maliki said in a joint news conference with Barzani, with whom he has traded harsh words in recent years.

The Iraqi premier said the Arbil talks would be followed by further visits by both sides.

Barzani, meanwhile, said the cabinet session marked "an important visit" and described it as a "start for removing all the problems."

Baghdad and Arbil have been deadlocked over several issues for years.

Both sides lay claim to a tract of land stretching from Iraq's eastern border with Iran to its western frontier with Syria, and they also disagree over the apportioning of oil revenues and the signing of contracts with foreign energy firms.

The cabinet session was followed by talks between cabinet ministers and Kurdish regional ministers and a direct meeting between Maliki and Barzani.

It comes just days after the interior ministry in Baghdad issued a strongly-worded statement calling for Kurdish forces to withdraw from disputed territory, threatening a fragile peace between the two sides' militaries.

Maliki's spokesman Ali Mussawi told AFP, that the Arbil meeting would be followed by a cabinet session in the predominantly Sunni Arab western province of Anbar, where anti-government protests have been raging since December.

He did not specify a date.

Iraq's Sunni Arab minority has decried alleged targeting and wrongful arrest by the Shiite-led authorities.


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