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Turkey: Kurdish rebels to begin pullout

08 May 2013, 14:36

Ankara - Kurdish rebels are due to begin their much-anticipated withdrawal from Turkey into their stronghold in northern Iraq on Wednesday, a major step towards ending a decades-long conflict that has left tens of thousands dead.

The pullout will be the first visible sign that months of fragile talks between the state and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) could succeed in ending 29 years of guerrilla war.

Around 2 000 rebels are expected to begin leaving Turkey on foot, travelling through the mountainous border zone to reach their safe haven in the inhospitable Qandil mountains in northern Iraq.

There they will join another 5 000 fellow militants at the command base which has been used as a springboard for attacks against Turkish security forces.

"The withdrawals are expected to take three or four months to complete," said Selahattin Demirtas, a pro-Kurdish lawmaker who has been part of the budding peace process.

On Tuesday the Kurdish rebels said they would not renege on their promise to withdraw on the orders of their imprisoned leader Abdullah Ocalan.

Complaints from rebels

Former state nemesis Ocalan in March called for a historic ceasefire from his jail cell after months of clandestine peace talks.

But if his supporters have agreed to the pullout, they have not yet taken their hands off their guns as the delicate process begins.

The rebels on Tuesday complained about Ankara boosting troops and carrying out surveillance flights at the border, saying they were "delaying the peace process" and paving the way for "provocations and clashes".

The Turkish army has not confirmed these measures but said their "fight against any terrorism continues", although no fatal clashes have occurred in recent months, the first such lull in years.

The PKK rebel command warned late last month that they would strike back if they were attacked.

"Our forces will use their right to retaliate in the event of an attack, operation or bombing against our withdrawing guerrilla forces and the withdrawal will immediately stop," PKK leader Murat Karayilan had warned.

Mass withdrawals in 1999 were disrupted when Turkish forces ambushed departing rebels, killing around 500 and wrecking confidence in permanent peace.

Impact of peace

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly vowed that retreating rebels "will not be touched".

He said on Tuesday that "laying down weapons" should be the top priority for the PKK, blacklisted as a terrorist group in the West, for the process to succeed.

Karayilan said in April that they were expecting Ankara to "do its part" before giving up arms, and called for wider constitutional rights for Turkey Kurds, who constitute 20% of the 75 million population.

Permanent peace could transform Turkey's impoverished Kurdish-majority southeast, where investment has remained scarce and infrastructure insufficient due to the threat of clashes.

It will also impact Erdogan's political future, after he braved a severe nationalist backlash to reveal negotiations with Ocalan.

Millions of Kurds are expecting Ocalan, who narrowly escaped a death sentence in 2002 after European Union pressure, to be pardoned and join politics.

Ocalan said in March peace call that a ceasefire would be the beginning of a "new era" for the Kurdish movement.

"It is not the time to give up the struggle, but to start a different one," Ocalan said.



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