DIYARBAKIR, Turkey -- Jailed Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan ordered his fighters on Thursday to cease fire and withdraw from Turkish soil as a step to ending a conflict that has killed 40,000 people, riven the country and battered its economy.
Hundreds of thousands of Kurds gathered in the regional center of Diyarbakir cheered and waved banners bearing Ocalan's moustachioed image when a statement by the rebel leader, held since 1999 on a prison island in the Marmara Sea, was read out by a Kurdish politician.
"Let guns be silenced and politics dominate," he said to a sea of red-yellow-green Kurdish flags. "The stage has been reached where our armed forces should withdraw beyond the borders. ... It's not the end. It's the start of a new era."
There was no immediate reaction from Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who has taken considerable risks since elected in 2002, breaking taboos held by some in the conservative establishment, not least in the military, by extending cultural and language rights to Kurds.
Two years ago, to the anger of hardliners, he countenanced secret talks with the PKK in Oslo.
The fighters would withdraw to their bases in the mountains of northern Iraq, which they have used as a springboard for attacks on Turkish soil. The Turkish air force has on a number of occasions attacked the strongholds.
'I remember peace'
Ocalan's Kurdistan Workers Party -- better known as the PKK and regarded by Turkey, the United States and European Union as a terrorist organization -- launched its campaign in 1984, demanding an independent Kurdish state in the southeast of Turkey.
But in recent years it has moderated its demands to political autonomy and broader cultural rights in an area where the Kurdish language was long formally banned.
"There is a strategic shift happening," said Ertugrul Kurkcu, a parliamentarian from the pro-Kurdish BDP party. "The Kurdish liberation movement is moving from an armed campaign to a cultural one. And the PKK accepts this."
The scenes in Diyarbakir, broadcast live on television, would have been unthinkable even months ago.
Throughout the conflict, the insignia of the banned PKK has been strictly banned and any display would have resulted in arrest.
"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 appears to have retained authority over his fighters in Turkey and in the mountains of northern Iraq where they will now gather. But there are still dangers of division over the terms of any deal.
A settlement would lift a huge burden off Turkey, though it would be viewed with deep suspicion by hard-line nationalists who fear Kurds would resume a drive for independence and undermine the Turkish state.
The war has drained state coffers, stunted development of the mainly Kurdish southeast and scarred the country's human rights record.
A peace would bolster the NATO member's credibility as it seeks to extend influence across the Middle East, and remove a stumbling block from its path to join the European Union.