Middle East Online DIYARBAKIR: 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.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan greeted Iraqi Kurdish leader Massud Barzani in the Kurds' heartland of Diyarbakir, southeast Turkey, ahead of a series of joint engagements including officiating at a mass wedding.
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 decades-old conflict with the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
Ankara hopes to use Barzani's influence as a respected figure among Turkey's Kurds to bring them back to the negotiating table.
"If Barzani has any importance in the eyes of our citizens, that importance will make its contribution," Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said on Friday.
Progress has stalled following a ceasefire called by jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in March. His fighters suspended a promised withdrawal from Turkish soil in September, accusing Ankara of failing to keep to the terms of the bargain in giving greater rights.
The Turkish army reported on Friday that one of its convoys had been attacked, allegedly by PKK rebels, for the first time in months in southeastern Nusaybin district on the Syrian border.
Thousands of rebels remain holed up in the autonomous north of Iraq, an area under Barzani's control, using the region as a springboard for attacks on Turkish targets as part of their campaign for self-rule in southeastern Turkey.
But Barzani said 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.
Turkey's "Kurdish question" has been in 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.
Some 45,000 people have been killed in the conflict since the PKK took up arms in 1984.
Certain prominent Kurds criticised Barzani's visit as an opportunistic gesture ahead of 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 (BDP) in Diyarbakir, Mehmet Emin Yilmaz.
Others contend that the visit is not an empty symbol, such as respected Kurdish parliamentary deputy Leyla Zana who said the talks were motivated by "hope".
Erdogan's Law and Justice Party (AKP) passed a package of reforms in September designed to give Kurds and other groups extra rights, but these fell short of expectations by failing, for example, to grant them any constitutional recognition.
Barzani's visit also follows the announcement Tuesday by the powerful Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) of a new transitional authority in Syrian Kurdistan.
Like Turkey, Barzani's government has not made secret its concerns over the PYD move towards temporary rule in northern Syria, after the victory of Kurdish forces over jihadist groups in Syria.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul on Friday warned the move risked "the breakup 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.
Erdogan is also likely to discuss the terms of an energy partnership with Barzani, a project that could aggravate tensions in the troubled region.
Any energy deal threatens to worsen a long-running dispute between Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdistan region in northern Iraq over the exploitation of the country's energy wealth, though Turkey has offered to act as a mediator in a gesture designed to pacify the Iraqis.