Kurdish rebels will start withdrawing thousands of guerrilla fighters from Turkey on May 8 and retreat across the border to northern Iraq, a rebel commander said Thursday, in an important milestone toward ending a nearly three-decade old insurgency that has cost tens of thousands of lives.
In a news conference held in northern Iraq's Qandil mountains, rebel commander Murat Karayilan said the extraction would be gradual, but warned it would come to an immediate stop should the rebels be attacked as they leave Turkey.
He also outlined for the first time "obligations" the Turkish government needs to fulfill for peace, including enacting a new constitution, dismantling special security units established to fight the rebels and declaring an amnesty for all imprisoned guerrillas. A video of the news conference was aired by Turkey's private Dogan news agency.
The decision to leave Turkey and retreat to bases in northern Iraq comes a month after the rebels declared a cease-fire, heeding a call by jailed rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan, who is engaged in talks with Turkish officials to end the fighting. Ocalan also had asked his group, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, to leave Turkey as part of the peace efforts.
"The withdrawal will be gradual, in groups," Karayilan, who took over the PKK's leadership after Ocalan's capture and imprisonment in 1999, said. "It will be completed in the shortest time possible."
"Withdrawal will stop immediately if there is any attack, operation or bombing of our guerrilla forces and our forces will use their right to reciprocate," Karayilan warned.
He said the rebels would pull out of Turkey through usual routes they use to slip into the country from Iraq.
There was no immediate statement from Turkish officials on the announcement. A vague statement released at the end of a national security meeting said Turkey's leaders had "assessed" steps needed to ensure that "efforts being taken for the peace and security of the people yield lasting results."
The rebels' retreat is seen as a major step toward a political settlement of a conflict with roots dating to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the redrawing of boundaries in the Middle East, which left Kurds scattered in Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran.
Kurds in Turkey were long denied a separate identity and basic cultural and linguistic rights. In 1984, Ocalan's PKK launched a campaign, first for independence, and then for autonomy and greater rights for Kurds — who make up around 20 percent of Turkey's 75 million people.
"The withdrawal is a very positive step," said Mesut Yegen, an expert on the conflict at Istanbul's Sehir University. "It is vital for the continuation of the political dialogue."
The PKK, which frequently launched attacks on Turkey from bases in northern Iraq, is designated a terrorist organization by Turkey and its Western allies. The Turkish government estimates that between 1,500 to 2,000 of the rebels operate from inside Turkey, mostly from caves and other hideouts in the country's rugged southeast.
Speaking in front of a flag emblazoned with Ocalan's portrait, Karayilan made clear his fighters wouldn't withdraw unarmed despite a Turkish government demand that the rebels lay down their weapons before retreating. The PKK commander said the group would disarm only after Ocalan and other Kurdish militants are released from prison.
The rebels were hesitant about an unarmed withdrawal without legal assurances from Turkey that the guerrillas wouldn't be attacked as they leave. Turkish forces reportedly attacked PKK guerrillas as they retreated in 1999 while obeying orders from Ocalan, who had appealed for peace soon after his capture.
"We understand that disarmament will take place at quite a late phase of the process," Yegen, the Kurdish expert, said. "The group wants to be on the safe side."
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government has said that the ultimate goal of the talks between Ocalan and Turkey's intelligence agency, launched late last year, is the PKK's disarmament. Government officials, however, have not given details of the talks and insist Turkey is not engaged in any horse-trading with the PKK.
Karayilan said it would be Turkey's turn to take steps expected by Kurds once the rebels leave the Turkish territory.
Kurds are demanding that a new constitution currently being drafted by parties represented in Turkey's parliament safeguards the rights of the minority group and increases the powers of local authorities, giving them more leverage in governing Turkey's mostly Kurdish southeast regions. Kurds also are seeking the release of hundreds of Kurdish activists jailed for alleged links to the PKK as well as improved jail conditions for Ocalan, who is serving a life term on a prison island near Istanbul.
Karayilan, however, went a step further, saying Ocalan — once Turkey's most-wanted man — should also be freed as part of the peace deal. Despite his 14-year incarceration, Ocalan still wields great power over his rebel group and is adored by Kurds.
"The total dismantling of weapons and the disarmament of the guerrillas will come to the agenda when everyone, including our leader Apo, reaches their freedom," Karayilan said. Apo, short for Abdullah, is Ocalan's nickname.
"Apo has fulfilled all of his responsibilities," Karayilan said. "Now it is the Turkish government and our turn."
While a majority of Turks support the end of hostilities, the peace efforts remain a highly emotional issue and some are concerned about too many concessions to the PKK, which is blamed for thousands of deaths, including civilians.
A nationalist party is strongly opposed to the peace efforts and objects to freedom for Ocalan, whom it calls the "monster of Imrali," in reference to the prison island where he is held.
"The only thing the PKK must do is to lay down its arms and give itself up to justice," Oktay Vural, a legislator from the Nationalist Action Party, told reporters. "There isn't a single concession the Turkish people can give the PKK terrorist organization."
Turkey's peace efforts with Ocalan follow a surge in violence last summer that killed hundreds of people. It also comes as a Syrian Kurdish group linked to the PKK has gained control in several areas of northern Syria amid the civil war in the country, adding to Turkey's worries. Many believe Turkey's conflict with the PKK hurts its ambitions to become a more powerful regional leader.
The PKK has declared cease-fires before and the government has acknowledged holding failed secret peace talks with the rebels in 2011. But many believe that the latest effort has a chance of success because of Ocalan's direct involvement.
Associated Press writer Ezgi Akin contributed to the report.