Kurdish rebels have started their gradual retreat from Turkey to bases in northern Iraq, a Kurdish party leader said Wednesday, kicking off a key stage in the peace process with the Turkish government aimed at ending one of the world's bloodiest insurgencies.
The Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, declared a cease-fire in March and agreed to withdraw guerrilla fighters from the Turkish territory, heeding a call from its imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan, who is engaged in talks with Turkey to end a nearly 30-year battle that has cost tens of thousands of lives.
The group, which has sought greater autonomy and more rights for Turkey's Kurds, has, however, rejected a Turkish government demand that they lay down arms before leaving the Turkish territory. The PKK's commander, Murat Karayilan, has said that the group won't disarm until Turkey enacts democratic reforms increasing the rights of Kurds and introduces an amnesty for all imprisoned rebels, including Ocalan.
Gultan Kisinak, a joint leader of a major pro-Kurdish political party in Turkey, said a first group of rebel fighters started their advance toward the border with Iraq on Wednesday.
"According to the information we have received, the movement has started," Kisanak told The Associated Press. She gave no information on the number of PKK fighters who had started the retreat.
"This is a historic process and a historic day," said Pervin Buldan, a legislator from Kisanak's party who is involved in the peace negotiations. "It is a day when ... a conflict-ridden process is ending and a new process is beginning."
The Turkish government did not confirm the pull out and a PKK spokesman in northern Iraq could not be reached for comment.
Turkey's deputy prime minister, Bulent Arinc, said, however: "We are following the issue. It's the results that are important for us. We feel that we are close to getting results."
The PKK, considered a terror organization by Turkey and its Western allies, is believed to have between 1,500 and 2,000 fighters inside Turkey, in addition to several thousand more based in northern Iraq. The full withdrawal of forces is expected to take several months. The group has long used the northern Iraqi territory as a springboard for attacks in Turkey.
The rebels on Tuesday complained about "provocative" acts by Turkey — including the continued construction of military border posts, reconnaissance flights by unmanned drones and the mobilization of troops in Turkey's mainly Kurdish southeast region — but said they would nevertheless press ahead with the withdrawal.
The PKK planned to first pull out rebels fighters based furthest away from the border, allowing those nearer the border to keep watch and ensure their secure passage, Kisanak said. Those nearest to the border will leave last, she said. Both the PKK and the government have said the rebels will use several routes they use to slip into Turkey and that the retreat will be conducted quietly.
Ozturk Turkdogan, the head of Turkey's independent Human Rights Association, who has been charged with overseeing the withdrawal, said the rebels would leave by foot. Members of his group will monitor areas near the border to make sure there is no Turkish military activity as the PKK withdraws.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly said that the PKK fighters would not come to any harm during the retreat.
"They take the prime minister's words as a political guarantee," Kisanak said. "But still, they want to take their own precautions as they withdraw."
The PKK says hundreds of the group's fighters were attacked as they withdrew from Turkey in 1999, after Ocalan was captured and ordered his fighters to withdraw for peace with Turkey.