ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Kurdish parliamentarians set off by boat on Monday to visit Kurdish militant leader Abdullah Ocalan in his island prison where they expected him to summon his fighters to cease fire and leave Turkey to help end a 28-year-old insurgency.
The conflict has been a major source of instability in Turkey, a NATO member, and a huge burden on state coffers while stunting economic development in the mainly Kurdish southeast.
The delegation from the Peace and Democracy Party, which includes non-ethnic Kurds, made no comment before leaving to see Ocalan on Imrali island in the Marmara Sea where he has been held since his capture in 1999, a BDP official told Reuters.
Ocalan's ceasefire call was expected to be announced at celebrations now under way to mark the Kurdish new year festival of Newroz on March 21. Those rites have in the past been marred by clashes between protesters and Turkish security forces.
Turkish officials have been holding talks with Ocalan, head of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), since October with the aim of striking a peace deal to end a conflict which has killed more than 40,000 people since 1984.
The complexities of resolving the conflict have scuttled several previous peace attempts. But the latest process is seen as the best chance in years for peace as a deal would ease Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's path to the presidency next year.
A BDP delegation previously met Ocalan in late February and since then the PKK leadership in northern Iraq and Europe have responded to his draft peace plan, which he was expected on Monday to finalize with a timetable.
Rebel PKK commander Murat Karayilan said last week the PKK supported Ocalan's peace efforts but communicated its misgivings about the process in a letter responding to him.
Turkey, the United States and the European Union list the PKK as a terrorist group. The BDP is a legal party with 29 parliamentarians made up overwhelmingly of ethnic Kurds focused on Kurdish issues.
The PKK says it keeps about half of its 7,000 fighters in Turkey and half in northern Iraq, where it maintains its main camps in remote, nearly impassable mountains. Turkish authorities estimate the number of rebels to be lower.
Erdogan has said he wants to end one of Europe's deadliest insurgencies. A sharp rise in violence since June 2011 has killed more than 800 soldiers and PKK guerrillas.
Apart from hampering economic growth, the conflict has scarred Turkey's human rights record and posed a major obstacle to membership in the European Union.
Ocalan is serving a life sentence for treason. He still holds sway over the PKK and is considered a hero by nationalist Kurds. Ethnic Kurds make up about 20 percent of Turkey's population of 75 million people.
The PKK once sought an independent Kurdish homeland but has scaled back its demands to limited self-rule in the southeast and greater cultural rights.
(Additional reporting by Gulsen Solaker in Ankara; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Mark Heinrich)
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