Originally published at 17:10
MOSCOW, March 21 (RIA Novosti) – Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) who is serving a life sentence, urged the PKK on Thursday to end its confrontation with the Turkish authorities, withdraw its militants from the country and start peace negotiations to settle a 30-year conflict.
“I am appealing to millions and saying: All those who bear arms, leave Turkey,” Ocalan said in a statement read out by representatives of the pro-Kurdish Party of Peace and Democracy in the city of Diyarbakir, southeast Turkey, predominantly populated by Kurds.
"Lay down your weapons and leave this country [Turkey]. We are moving from an armed struggle to a democratic one."
Ocalan’s message was read to a crowd estimated at between several hundred thousand and two million. Tens of thousands also heard the statement in other cities and towns in Turkey.
The ceasefire call comes after months of negotiations with Turkish officials. Turkey’s interior minister has welcomed what he calls Ocalan’s “language of peace.”
The statement was timed to coincide with the start of Nowruz, the New Year festivity celebrated across much of the Middle East.
Approximately 5,000 private security officers joined 3,000 police to keep the peace at the gathering, Hurriyet Daily News reported.
The thousands of people in attendance, some of whom had come from neighboring provinces, left so little available accommodations that officials of the Peace and Democracy Party asked local residents to open their homes to the travelers.
Ocalan was originally sentenced to death in 1999 after being captured in Kenya. That verdict was commuted to a life sentence three years later, when Turkey abolished the death penalty as part of its efforts to secure European Union membership.
Ocalan founded the PKK, which Turkey, the United States and European Union view as a terrorist organization, in 1978, six years before the group launched what was to become a full-fledged armed struggle for an independent Kurdish state.
The conflict has since claimed the lives of more than 40,000 people, many of them civilians, both Turkish and Kurdish.
(Updates with reaction, details in paras 4-8)
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