Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay strongly rejected claims regarding the existence of ongoing talks between government representatives and members of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, while speaking to the broadcasting station Kanal 7 Saturday.

"Nowadays, we sometimes see in the press [claims regarding] an explicit ceasefire. We never uttered such a concept. Our security measures are continuing as before and will continue," Atalay said.

Turkey is following an integrated strategy at different levels from cross-border operations to internal raids against the Kurdish Communities Union, or KCK, the alleged urban wing of the PKK, he said, adding that talks between the government and the PKK were out of the question at the moment.

Atalay's comments came on the same day the governor of the southeastern province of Diyarbakir confirmed that a military operation against the PKK on Mt. Görese was still underway. Over 50 PKK militants were caught in a pincer, while another 10 militants were killed during the operation that started Dec. 16 with the involvement of special operation units and helicopter gunship support, according to the Doğan news agency.

PKK militants were allegedly returning to their hideouts for the winter when security forces spotted them. Regional commanders of the PKK were also among the militants, according to reports.

"Certain state institutions were holding talks [with the PKK]. There may be some demands from certain quarters, but neither we nor our prime minister have issued any pledges or promises to anyone," Atalay said in response to a journalist who inquired about claims by the PKK they had broken the ceasefire because the state had not lived up to its promises.

Meanwhile, security forces were put on high alert when a woman reportedly told them she had encountered on a train a PKK suicide bomber whose pictures she had seen at the Pamukova Police Headquarters. Security forces initiated a district wide search to locate the suspect codenamed "Ladin Irmak" who allegedly got off the train at the district of Pamukova in the northwestern province of Sakarya and left by foot.

"We are currently working on speeding up the trial [processes], if not on actually shortening apprehension periods. We are not publicizing it, as it has not yet matured," Atalay said. The prime minister had also approved of the work, he said.

Opposition Maintains Support for Five-Year Presidential Terms

The ongoing debate over President Abdullah Gül's term length has deepened with the main opposition reiterating its support for a five-year term while also calling for a return to the head of state's election by Parliament.
Republican People's Party, or CHP, leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu said Saturday that Turkey should return to the old system under which Parliament elected the head of state because the presidency is a largely ceremonial office, meaning candidates would have little to offer voters during campaigning.

"What will a presidential candidate promise to the people? That he can appoint university rectors better than other candidates?" he said.

Kılıçdaroğlu made the comments after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan came out a day earlier in support of fixing Gül's term at seven years amid the continuing debate about how long the term should be.

"Our position is the president's term should be seven years. There is a developing view that the issue should be handled in Parliament. It will come to the agenda of the Constitution [Conciliation] Commission in the new year," Erdoğan said in Istanbul on Saturday.

The ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, is planning to end the controversy by adding a provision to a draft law on the procedural rules for the presidential elections that will be discussed at the commission in January, party sources said. The provision would indicate presidential candidates would start submitting their applications on a date in 2014, effectively fixing Gül's term at seven years, the tenure laid out by the Constitution at the time he was elected.

But the CHP slammed the plan, arguing that a law could not stipulate provisions countering the Constitution, which currently allows for a five-year, once-renewable term for the president under amendments approved by referendum in 2007 shortly after Parliament elected Gül as president. The AKP is manipulating the law to pave the way for Erdoğan to ascend to the presidency after completing his term as prime minister, he added.

"The issue requires a constitutional amendment. You cannot do this with a law if this is still a state based on the rule of law," the CHP's deputy group chairwoman, Emine Ülker Tarhan, told the Hürriyet Daily News.

Turkey's next head of state is set to be elected by a popular vote for the first time under the 2007 amendments. Until now, the ongoing controversy has centered on whether the amendments should be considered retroactive to affect Gül's mandate.

The opposition argues Gül should serve five years on grounds that constitutional amendments reducing parliamentary terms from five to four years, which were approved as part of the same package in 2007, were considered retroactive for the previous legislature.

The Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, also insisted that Gül was entitled to a five-year, once-renewable term.

"The prime minister may chose any course of action relying on his parliamentary majority but we preserve our view that the '5+5' formula is the legally valid one," MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli said, expressing his support for a system in which a president would be able to stand for two five-year terms.

Atalay, meanwhile, voiced confidence that the AKP would sort out the controversy, saying the party had not yet begun discussions as to who would be its candidate for the next head of state.
"I am not sure whether [Gül's] term could be fixed with a law. There is some hesitation there. Our basic position is Parliament should have the final say; therefore, we may already consider this problem resolved," he told the private Kanal 7 channel.

Erdogan Says Gul's Presidential Term Will Remain Seven Years

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Saturday that President Abdullah Gül's presidential tenure is seven years as opposition party leaders offer a different interpretation of the current law regarding presidential terms.

In a joint press conference with Mustafa Abdul Jelil, head of the Libyan Transitional Council, Erdoğan spoke out on behalf of the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, touching upon the discussions over Gül's presidential term and saying that it will stay seven years. He added that the issue would come before the Constitutional Reconciliation Commission in January.

As a result of a 2007 referendum, the people instead of by Parliament, will elect the president succeeding Gül. Even though Gül was elected as president by Parliament before the referendum took place, opposition parties argue that the change in the presidential term must apply to Gül as well and say that he must give up his position at the end of five years in office.

Answering reporters' questions at a meeting in Ankara on Thursday, Parliament Speaker Cemil Çiçek said the discussions over Gül's presidential term are dragging on, and there are two clashing opinions regarding the issue. "Some say his tenure is five years, some say seven. The decision will be made by Parliament, not the parliament speaker," he said.

Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay said on Sunday Gül's presidential tenure is seven years and will end in 2014 as expected. He said parliament is the only authority that can make adjustments to Gül's tenure, in response to heated discussions among opposition parties as some leaders have offered a different interpretation.

Opposition National Movement Party, or MHP, leader Devlet Bahçeli said a possible two five-year terms is the ideal formulation for presidential tenure in an address to the press on Saturday.

In the former system, a president could only stay in office for one seven-year term. After the referendum took place in 2007, a president can now stay in office for two five-year terms.

According to Bahçeli, the president's term is five years due to the amendment. "After five years, the president [Gül] should be able to declare his candidacy for another five-year term," Bahçeli said. He said his party will attend to the issue in parliament sessions if it is brought before parliament within the next few weeks.

On Saturday, former leader of the Republican People's Party, or CHP, Deniz Baykal said everything is clear on the issue of Gül's presidential tenure. He stated that Gül's term would end after five years in office. While attending the distribution of aşure (Noah's pudding) in Ankara's Etimesgut district, Baykal noted the discussions are senseless as the law obviously says how long the president should keep his office.

Erdogan Tells Sarkozy to Keep Promises

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan urged French President Nicolas Sarkozy to keep earlier promises to forestall legislation that would criminalize the denial of Armenian "genocide" as Ankara turned up pressure on Paris, warning French businesses of serious consequences to trade links.

The bill, to be voted on Dec. 22, is threatening a fresh crisis in Turkish-French ties, long poisoned by strong French opposition to Turkey's European Union accession, just when signs have emerged of a rare rapprochement between the two countries as part of international efforts to end the turmoil in Syria.

In a letter to the French president, Erdoğan urged Sarkozy "to keep his promise that such legislative attempts would not be finalized and block irreparable developments" in bilateral relations.

Prime Ministry sources said the remark was a reference to statements Sarkozy made after a similar bill was approved at the French Parliament's lower house in 2006, but could not make it to a vote in the Senate. The French president said at the time that "he had no intention to take the bill to the Senate and did not want things to get worse," the letter said, adding that this position was also confirmed in talks with special representatives of the two leaders.

"The advancement of such attempts will have grave consequences for ties between Turkey and France in all fields - political, economic and cultural," Erdoğan said, dubbing the bill as a "hostile" move targeting Turkey and the Turkish community in France.

Erdoğan said, if approved, the bill would harm also efforts to normalize Turkish-Armenian ties and deal a blow to free speech. Turkey has already said it will recall its ambassador from Paris if the bill is passed.

In an effort to enlist support from the business world, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu summoned representatives of French businesses in Turkey and Turkish companies trading with France for a meeting on Dec. 15.

The minister underlined the recent "positive momentum" in Turkish-French relations and warned that the approval of the bill would "inevitably" harm bilateral trade at a time when France is under the threat of economic depression, diplomatic sources said.

Turkish business leaders also mobilized to help head off the bill, under which anyone in France who publicly denies the genocide could face a year in jail and a fine of 45,000 euros ($58,000).

The head of the Turkish Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges, or TOBB, Rıfat Hisarcıklıoğlu, visited French Ambassador Laurent Bili to convey his concerns over the economic repercussions of "this very serious problem that could profoundly shake relations," a TOBB statement said.

"It's so bad that our long-term relationship is being jeopardized in the name of short-term expectations," Hisarcıklıoğlu said, referring to France's presidential elections next year.
The chairwoman of the Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen's Association, or TÜSİAD, Ümit Boyner, said she was already in contact with French counterparts ahead of a visit to Paris next week.

A joint TOBB-TÜSİAD delegation will hold a series of meetings with French business groups and urge them to use their influence over French politicians to stop the bill, she said.

Leading French firms in Turkey are preparing to sign a letter to be sent to French President Nicholas Sarkozy, according to the chief of one of the largest French firms operating in Turkey, the Hürriyet Daily News has learned. The letter is expected to deliver a united message against a draft bill at the French parliament that will introduce punishment for the denial of the "Armenian genocide."

"We have accepted the invitation of TOBB, regarding a letter addressing the French Presidency and showed our sensitivity in respect to the matter," said Emre Üge, general manager of Sodexo Turkey, in a written response to questions from the Daily News. "We are expecting this draft, which is a clear barrier to freedom of expression, to be rejected by the French parliament. I hope this initiative [at parliament] will be limited to being one of the negative moves that we have been seeing prior to almost every election in France."

The source said French firms operating in Turkey would put their name and signature on the letter.

On Friday, company representatives were discussing the content and the tone of the letter, the source added.

"French firms are used to such crises -- this is not the first time," Banu Antonetti, board member of the Turkish-France Business Council, told the Daily News Friday. "Political tensions would not bring a huge change in bilateral trade and investment ties. However, companies might face difficulties regarding big tenders in both countries."

As the Daily News went to print on Friday, BNP Paribas and Carrefour had not yet replied to questions. Bayraktar Holding, the Turkish distributor of Citroen, Schneider and Club Med declined to comment on the issue.

Turkey in Full-Court Press Against France

Turkish lawmakers and business leaders are preparing to run a full-court diplomatic press against France to prevent the adoption of a controversial law penalizing the denial of Armenian genocide claims.

A delegation led by Volkan Bozkır, head of Parliament's Foreign Relations Committee, launched a three-day campaign in Paris Sunday where he will express the Turkish legislature's unease to French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe and other senior French lawmakers and officials. A vote on the bill is expected to take place Dec. 22.

Bozkır's meeting will also include Jean-Marc Ayrault, head of the Socialist Group at the French Parliament, and Michel Diefenbacher, head of the Turkish-French Friendship Group. Bozkır will also meet French Parliament Speaker Bernard Accoyer and French President Nicholas Sarkozy's foreign policy adviser, Jean-David Levitte, on Dec. 20.

Speaking in Konya at a meeting of the Reform Monitoring Group, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu slammed the bill and argued the European Union should start monitoring the "freedom of expression in France." The minister appealed to French intellectuals and civic society to defend freedom of speech in the country, stressing "European values are under threat in France."

The main opposition Republican People's Party, or CHP, is also planning to send a delegation to Paris today. Osman Korutürk, a lawmaker from the CHP who was Turkey's ambassador to France between 2005 and 2009, and Haluk Koç, will lobby against the bill in Paris.

France "will make another historical mistake" if it approves the bill, CHP deputy leader Faruk Loğoğlu said in New York on the sidelines of a meeting.

This week's diplomatic campaign comes after the Turkish government warned France of serious repercussions should the law, which would entail a yearlong jail sentence and a 45,000-euro fine for individuals who deny the genocide claims, be passed. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Parliamentary Speaker Cemil Çiçek sent letters late last week urging their counterparts to recognize that "there will be grave consequences if the bill is adopted."

Erdoğan intensified his message against the French initiative on Dec. 17 saying: "There were reports France was responsible for the deaths of 45,000 people in Algeria in 1945 and for the massacre of up to 800,000 people in Rwanda in 1994. No historian, no politician can see genocide in our history. Those who want to see genocide should turn around and look at their own dirty and bloody history. The French National Assembly should shed light on Algeria; it should shed light on Rwanda."

Turkey has already announced it will withdraw its ambassador in Paris if the bill is adopted and said the move would seriously damage bilateral ties. Turkish European Union Minister Egemen Bağış, meanwhile, drew attention to Dec. 22, the day French Parliament is set to vote on the bill, saying it was the anniversary of the assassination of a Turkish diplomat at the hands of the outlawed Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia, or ASALA, in 1979.

Bağış called on France to apologize to Turkey for failing to protect the Turkish diplomat instead of initiating such "unwise" moves in parliament. France is among the countries that have recognized the mass killings of Armenians during the World War I at the hands of Ottoman Empire as "genocide."

As well as lawmakers and diplomats, Turkey's business leaders will unite against the bill in Paris this week. Representatives of the influential Union of Chambers of Commodity Exchange of Turkey, or TOBB, and the Turkish Industry and Business Association, or TÜSİAD, will hold meetings with their counterparts in Paris today and ask them to stand against the bill to prevent any damage to economic ties. Turkish business leaders will visit top French business associations like the Medef and ICC.

"There are 960 French companies who have investments in Turkey. We have mobilized them against the bill with concerns the motion will damage their investments," TOBB Chairman Rifat Hisarcıklıoğlu said over the weekend.

A TOBB board member also warned the adoption of the bill would result in an entire boycott of French products in Turkey.

"If this law is adopted, it will have consequences not only in political and economic fields, but also in scientific, social, cultural and humanitarian dimensions," Mustafa Yardımcı said in a written statement Saturday.

Syria May Sign Arab Peace Plan by Monday

Qatar's Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad said he had information that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would sign the Arab peace plan aimed at ending his crackdown on anti-government protests, but gave no further details. Sheikh Hamad heads an Arab ministerial committee on Syria.

Meanwhile, the Omani minister responsible for foreign affairs said Saturday that the Arab League is "optimistic" that, by today, Syria will sign a proposal to send an observer mission to the restive country.

"We are optimistic that Syria will join the Arab League and sign the protocol within the next 24 hours," Yussef bin Alawi told reporters in Riyadh.

The 22-member Arab bloc has been trying to persuade Damascus to accept observers to monitor the situation as part of a plan to end the bloodshed, Reuters reported. On November 27, the Arab bloc approved a raft of sanctions against Syria for failing to heed an ultimatum to admit observers.

Earlier this month, Syria finally said it would allow the mission, but laid down a number of conditions, including the lifting of sanctions. Alawi said the Arab League will meet Dec. 21 to discuss Syria.

"If it doesn't sign we will take decisions," he added without elaborating. Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem Al-Thani said on Saturday that the meeting would be held in Cairo and accused Damascus of stalling on the Arab League proposal.

He warned that the League would take Syria to the UN Security Council if it persisted in refusing to admit observers to monitor the protection of civilians.

Baghdad's foreign minister will lead an Iraqi initiative to end months of unrest in Syria by holding talks with the Damascus regime, opposition groups and the Arab League, an Iraqi official said Saturday.

"We had very positive discussions on Sunday with the secretary general of the Arab League, who supported our initiative alongside that of the Arab League in an effort to find a solution between the Syrians," National Security Adviser Falah al-Fayadh told Agence France-Presse. "Our next step is to launch our initiative, and this task will be led by the foreign minister (Hoshyar Zebari) who will announce the details and mechanisms to the Arab League and the Syrian parties soon."

Armed clashes erupted in Syria Saturday, killing at least 14 civilians and six government troops in central and northern Syria, activists said, the latest sign that the nation's uprising may be deteriorating into civil war, Associated Press reported.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said an army officer was among the six soldiers killed in the town of Qusair in Homs province, near the border with Lebanon. Heavy gunbattles were also reported yesterday in several villages in the restive Jabal al-Zawiya region in the northern Idlib province near the Turkish border, where many defectors are believed to be operating.

The United Nations estimates that more than 5,000 people have been killed in the government crackdown on pro-democracy protests that erupted in mid-March.

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