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Turkey presents bill to revive Kurdish peace talks

A peace process aimed at ending a decades-long conflict between Turkey and Kurdish rebels was given a major boost as the Turkish government proposed reforms to revive stalled talks.

ISTANBUL: A peace process aimed at ending a decades-long conflict between Turkey and Kurdish rebels was given a major boost on Thursday as the Turkish government proposed reforms to revive stalled talks.

In an apparent bid to garner votes from Turkey's biggest minority group ahead of presidential polls in August, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government submitted a bill to parliament that would remove a number of barriers to an eventual agreement.

The six-article package of reforms would grant legal protection to key actors involved in peace talks with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a parliamentary source told AFP.

It would also aim to facilitate the rehabilitation of militants from the PKK who give up arms to return "home" to Turkey, and give the government the authority to appoint individuals and bodies to carry out talks regarding the so-called "Kurdish question".

Politicians, diplomats and spies involved in negotiating with rebels would be granted legal immunity to engage with militants.

The PKK's jailed leader, Abdullah Ocalan, welcomed the bill as an "historic development."

Ocalan's message was delivered in a statement relayed on Thursday by pro-Kurdish lawmakers who visited him in his prison cell on the island of Imrali near Istanbul.

Hasip Kaplan, a deputy from the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP), described the move as a "late but very positive step towards greater recognition of Kurds".

"A legal guarantee to the peace talks has always been our top priority. It (the bill) meets our expectations," he told AFP.

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.

Erdogan's Islamic-rooted government launched clandestine peace talks with the PKK's jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan in 2012 to end a conflict that has claimed about 45,000 lives over three decades.

The rebels declared a ceasefire in March 2013, but peace talks stalled in September after the insurgents said they were suspending their retreat from Turkish soil, accusing the government of failing to deliver on promised reforms.

The presentation of the bill comes as the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) prepares to announce on Tuesday its candidate for presidential polls in August - widely expected to be Erdogan.

Support from the country's Kurdish minority, who make up one fifth of the population and form a majority in the southeast, could be vital for Erdogan's success, especially if he is seeking an outright first round victory.

Speaking on Thursday, Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay said the reforms, which should be passed by July 25 when parliament is scheduled to go into summer recess, could be "the last steps" towards a peace deal.

"We are nearing a stage when these problems are solved, violence ends, people lay down their arms and come down from the mountains to return to normal social life," Atalay said in comments broadcast by Turkish television.

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