Turkey is under pressure from the European Union, which it hopes to join, to improve the cultural rights of its ethnic minorities, especially the 12 million Kurds who until the 1990s were banned from using their language in public.

Private television channels will begin Kurdish language broadcasts on Thursday, but they will be limited to 45 minutes a day, or four hours a week, and must carry Turkish subtitles.

They are also prevented from airing educational programmes teaching the Kurdish language or broadcasting programmes directed at children, such as cartoons.

Cemal Dogan, director of Gun TV, one of three broadcasters now allowed to show Kurdish language programmes, said: "After many bureaucratic setbacks, we have finally won the right to broadcast in Kurdish.

"It is a small step, we still face many restrictions. But it is very important for Turkey and we are happy."

Gun TV hopes to attract 1.5 million viewers in Diyarbakir, the biggest city of Turkey's mainly Kurdish southeast region, with programmes about history, culture and health.

Soz TV and a radio station will also be broadcasting in Kurdish.

Turkish state television and radio already provide limited broadcasting in Kurdish and several other minority languages including Arabic, but Dogan says nobody watches them as they consist almost entirely of news items from the previous week.

Slow pace

Ankara has been slow to allow Kurdish language broadcasts due to fears this could fan political separatism.

Turkish security forces have battled Kurdish rebels since 1984 in a conflict which has cost at least 30,000 lives.

Dogan said the broadcasts would be a positive thing.

"With time, people will see there is nothing to be afraid of, that allowing these broadcasts can help to resolve the Kurdish problem."

Others are less optimistic. They say Ankara's slow, grudging broadcasting reforms are symbolic of its wider approach to the Kurds, and say Turkey only acts because of heavy EU pressure.

Sezgin Tanrikulu, the head of the Diyarbakir bar association and a lawyer, said: "If I were [Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip] Erdogan, I would allow free, unlimited broadcasting in Kurdish, except for politically sensitive material."

But rising Turkish nationalism, along with looming elections due by 2007, make it harder for Erdogan to act, he said.