Turkey’s powerful military intervened on Tuesday in a heated political row over government efforts to extend the rights of Kurdish citizens, supporting the initiative but opposing any contacts with militants.

The ruling Justice & Development party faces a growing backlash to plans to broaden language and cultural rights for an estimated 12 million Kurds, as opposition politicians whip up widely held fears that the opening could endanger national unity or amount to bargaining with terrorists.

The reforms, though presented as part of a broader move to improve minority rights in line with European standards, will be vital to ending a 25-year conflict with separatist Kurdistan Workers Party rebels that has claimed more than 40,000 lives.

The military, which views itself as a guardian of Turkey’s values as well as its borders, has thrown its weight behind the initiative. In Tuesday’s statement Ilker Basbug, chief of general staff, said the army’s fight against the PKK should be accompanied by the state taking “the necessary measures in the economic, socio-cultural and international fields”.

He also said freedom of discussion should not be abused by statements that could “endanger the existence of the state or polarise the country” – a warning not to fuel tensions that may be aimed at both nationalists and hard-line Kurdish politicians.

The intervention drew angry responses from both ends of the political spectrum. Devlet Bahceli, leader of the right-wing National Action Party, issued a long statement recalling the 1920s war of independence, claiming the nation’s existence was again under threat and calling on patriots to “rally under the Turkish flag”.

The pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party, which wants not just greater cultural rights but also some regional autonomy and an amnesty for PKK militants, said it was worried by the AKP’s support for Gen Basbug’s statement.

The government has been consulting all summer to determine the content of a “Kurdish opening” that might begin with relatively straightforward steps, such as restoring the old Kurdish names of villages or allowing greater freedom for Kurdish language broadcasters.

But it is unlikely to be able to broach the most controversial issues, such as Kurdish language education or constitutional change, without opposition support. Deputies involved in the initiative are worried that it risks foundering amid factional politics.

Gen Basbug said there could be no question of changing a constitutional article that mandates Turkish as the official language. The military would also oppose any change in the state’s unitary structure, any attempt to conduct politics based on ethnic differences and any contacts with the PKK or its supporters, he said.

The military had faced rare criticism from opposition parties after the National Security Council, whose membership includes senior commanders, last week publicly endorsed the initiative to address long-standing Kurdish grievances.

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