DIYARBAKIR, Turkey -- The jailed Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan on Thursday called for a cease-fire and the removal of all his fighters from Turkish soil, in a landmark moment for a newly energized effort to end three decades of armed conflict with the Turkish government.
"We have reached the point where weapons should go silent and ideas should speak," Mr. Ocalan wrote in a letter read out to jubilant crowds gathered in the Kurdish heartland here in southern Turkey. "A new era starts when politics, instead of guns, comes to the forefront."
The conflict between Mr. Ocalan's Kurdistan Workers' Party, or P.K.K., and the Turkish government has claimed nearly 45,000 lives and has deeply scarred society since its start in 1984. While there have been previous periods of cease-fire between Turkey and the group, never before has a broader peace process had as much support at the highest levels of both the Turkish and Kurdish leadership.
For the Turkish government, the effort to seek peace within its borders has been seen as a critical step in its ambition to be a regional power. For the Kurds, the call for peace carries with it the hope of expanded rights under a new constitution and the freedom to express a separate identity within a country that for decades denied their existence, forbade them to speak their language and abused their activists.
Mr. Ocalan's declaration, a critical confidence-building step as the peace process continues, brought ecstatic celebration among the huge crowds gathered outside Diyarbakir to celebrate Nowruz, the traditional spring festival. Lawmakers read out the statements in both Turkish and Kurdish as waves of yellow, red and green, the traditional colors of the Kurdish movement, rippled through the masses.
"Now, we've reached the phase that our armed elements retreat beyond the borders," the letter read, referring to a withdrawal of P.K.K. fighters from Turkey to the group's stronghold in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq. "In our hearts, this is not an end, but a brand new start. This is not quitting the struggle, but starting a different one."
The Kurdish resistance leader's direct involvement in the peace process, albeit while he is serving a life term in prison on a treason conviction, was itself a statement of how far the two sides have come. Mr. Ocalan had been barred from involvement in previous diplomatic efforts.
His announcement was praised, though cautiously, by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who over the past decade took steps to start easing cultural oppression of the country's huge Kurdish population.
"As a matter of fact, I see the statement as a positive development," Mr. Erdogan said. "Implementation, however, is much more important, as we hope to see at the earliest to what extent Ocalan's statement would be accepted."
Murat Karayilan, the rebels' military commander in Qandil Mountains in Iraq, issued a statement in support of Mr. Ocalan's announcement and confirmed that the group would retreat, NTV, a private news television network, reported.
Some level of skepticism, however, resonated among Kurds who had flocked to the festivities here early Thursday, who are wary after having lived through past truces that failed.
"If the state fools these people once more, hell would break lose and we'd be forced to leave this land that will turn into a big ball of fire," Zulkuf Gunes, 52, said, as he embraced his 2-year-old grandson, who was dressed in traditional Kurdish outfit in military green.
"Apo has made a step and now the state should do something to show that it is sincere," Mr. Gunes added, using the popular nickname for Mr. Ocalan.
Kurds primarily demand the release of thousands of Kurdish political activists, including elected mayors, who were put in jail on charges of attempting to destroy the unity of the Turkish state.
"How can we talk about a political process when thousands of our people, activists, are in jail?" said Fevzi Cengiz, a retired man from Diyarbakir, as he quietly walked away from the gathering, with a Kurdish scarf tied around his shoulder.
"I did not hear any unconditional retrieval in Apo's message," he said. "It's just a door set ajar, and now it's the state's turn to make a step."
Ceylan Yeginsu contributed reporting from Istanbul, and Tim Arango from Baghdad.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.