DIYARBAKIR, Turkey (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Kurds gathered in southeast Turkey on Thursday expecting a call from jailed rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan for a ceasefire in a peace process which marks the best hope yet of ending a conflict that has killed 40,000 people.
In a jubilant atmosphere in the mainly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, crowds waved banners bearing pictures of Ocalan and chanted slogans for his release in anticipation of what Ocalan has said will be a "historic call".
His announcement, to be read in Turkish and Kurdish by pro-Kurdish politicians, will follow months of talks with Turkish intelligence officers on the island prison in the Marmara Sea where Ocalan has been held since his capture by Turkish special forces in Kenya in 1999.
"War happens, but at some point you have to dress your wounds. This is our chance now," said Bedri Alat, 73. "I remember peace. My grandson does not. He does not remember when Kurds and Turks lived as brothers. This is a last chance."
Ocalan's call could cement peace talks with Turkey that have been edging forward since October, possibly commanding his Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) guerrillas to withdraw to northern Iraq where most of its several thousand rebels are based.
Such moves would lift a huge burden off Turkey, fighting the PKK since 1984 in a war which has drained state coffers, stunted development of the mainly Kurdish southeast and scarred the human rights record.
A settlement would bolster the NATO member's credibility as it seeks to grow its influence across the Middle East, and remove a stumbling block from its unsteady path to join the European Union.
Truces have been declared and secret talks held with the PKK in the past, but expectations this time have been fuelled by the openness with which the process has been conducted.
If the ceasefire holds, the path to disarmament and the reintegration of militants will still be long and vulnerable to sabotage.
Leftist militants launched bomb and missile strikes on Turkish government and ruling party offices on Tuesday night in attacks which Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said were aimed at derailing the peace process.
Late on Wednesday, a small bomb exploded in front of a shop in an Istanbul suburb, damaging a vehicle and shattering windows, Dogan news agency reported. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.
"Peace won't come just because the prime minister says so. A ceasefire isn't enough to guarantee my rights and freedoms," said Mustafa Guner, 22, a literature student at Diyarbakir's Dicle University, sipping tea at a nearby cafe in a restored caravanserai.
"I am hopeful, but I am also wary and I am anxious."
FRAGILE ROAD AHEAD
The prospect of talks with the PKK, considered a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union as well as Turkey, would long have outraged most Turks, who revile Ocalan and hold him personally responsible for the bloodshed.
Live television coverage of people waving PKK flags and images of Ocalan, known by his supporters as Apo, as they streamed into a large field on the edge of Diyarbakir would have been unthinkable even a year ago.
"We want freedom for Apo. He is our leader. He sacrificed his life and family for Kurds and we are ready to give ours in return," said Bayram Guzel, 23, who has a brother fighting in the Turkish army.
"No real peace can come as long as our leader is in jail. We need a general amnesty so our brothers can come down from the mountains," he said.
Erdogan has promoted the contact with Ocalan since a worsening of the conflict last summer brought rising guerrilla violence. Growing Kurdish assertiveness in neighboring northern Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region and in war-torn Syria have only added to the sense of urgency.
At the cafe in Diyarbakir, student Resan Erdogan, 25, a Kurd who shares the prime minister's surname, said a PKK withdrawal too early in the peace process would be disastrous for Kurds.
"The PKK is our insurance. Any rights we have gained are because they fought for them," he said as the sound of fighter jets from the city's air base thundered above, a reminder of the heavy military presence Turkey maintains in the region.
Abdullah Demirbas, a district mayor in Diyarbakir, said there were likely to be more attempts to sabotage the process ahead.
"There are deep forces who want war and they are pervasive. They feed off blood," he told Reuters.
"The PKK, Ocalan and the government must be brave... There is massive social support for this process. There is hope, albeit restrained. That stems from disappointments in the past."
Demirbas said this was a last chance for peace.
"The next generation is like a storm. It is more radical. It has never known peace between Kurds and Turks. Now you can still convince many of them, we can still win them over. But if we lose them this time, they will never listen to us again."
(Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Peter Graff)
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