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Jul 8, 12:43 PM EDT

Turkey seeks to boost peace talks with Kurds

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ANKARA, Turkey (AP) -- Turkish lawmakers debated legislation Tuesday to restart a stalled peace process with the Kurdish rebels - a development that could also help Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan win Kurdish votes as he seeks election as president next month.

Erdogan, who has dominated Turkish politics for more than a decade, declared last week that he's running for president. Votes from Kurds - who make up an estimated 20 percent of Turkey's 76 million people - would be key to achieving his ambition of becoming Turkey's first directly elected head of state.

The Turkish government began talking with the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, in 2012 with the aim of ending a three-decade long conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives. In 2013, Kurdish rebels declared a cease-fire and began withdrawing fighters from Turkey into bases in northern Iraq but the withdrawal came to a halt in September after the PKK accused Erdogan of not increasing Kurdish rights as promised.

If passed, the legislation would give the Turkish government the power to take the measures it deems necessary to advance the talks, including steps to grant amnesty to Kurdish militants who lay down arms. Officials involved in talks with the rebel group - still formally designated as a terrorist organization - would be immune from prosecution.

Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK's jailed leader, has welcomed the proposed legislation as a "historic development," according to Kurdish legislators who visited him on his prison island off Istanbul last week.

Erdogan, 60, who has been in power since 2003, is barred by internal party rules from running as premier again. He is hoping to move to the presidency - which would keep him at Turkey's helm for at least five more years.

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