Kurdish rebels begin Turkey withdrawal, fuelling peace hopes
Some of the 2,000 PKK fighters based in Turkey set to begin trekking through mountains to bases in northern Iraq. Mayor of Semdinli, where insurgency was launched, says 'this town has never known normalcy, it has always been in the cross-hairs of war'
Turkish security forces manned checkpoints along the mountainous border with Iraq on Wednesday, keeping up their guard while Kurdish militants prepared to withdraw after 30 years of conflict that has killed 40,000 and ravaged the region.
Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) guerrillas accused the army on Tuesday of endangering their agreed pullout with reconnaissance drones and troop movements they said could trigger clashes. But on Wednesday there was no sign of military activity in the grey skies over southeast Turkey.
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Soldiers and police mostly waved drivers through four of the checkpoints on the narrow road to the town of Semdinli, where the PKK launched their insurgency with an attack on August 15, 1984, near the borders with Iraq and Iran.
Some of the 2,000 PKK fighters based in Turkey were set to begin trekking through mountains to bases in northern Iraq on Wednesday, taking with them their kalashnikov rifles.
The withdrawal, ordered late last month by top PKK commander Murat Karayilan, is the biggest step yet in a peace deal negotiated by the group's jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan with Turkish officials over recent months.
Some media reports said the withdrawal had begun, but pro-Kurdish MPs monitoring the process and security sources did not confirm that.
"We have observed movement among (PKK) group members, but have not been able to establish whether this is regrouping or preparation for a withdrawal," one security source told Reuters.
Kurdish rebels on way to northern Iraq (Photo: AFP)
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has taken a huge gamble with the process, attracting a nationalist backlash before elections next year as he seeks to end a conflict which has put a huge burden on state coffers and tarnished Turkey's image abroad.
Few areas have been scarred by the conflict more than the Semdinli area, accessible by a single road that cuts through emerald-green valleys and snowcapped mountains, and which witnessed the deadliest clashes in more than a decade last year.
Rebel leader Ocalan (right) with PKK co-founder Sakine Casiz, who was murdered in Paris (Archive photo: Reuters)
"This town has never known normalcy, it has always been in the cross-hairs of war," said 30-year-old Mayor Sedat Tore. He does not remember a time in his life without the violence.
"May 8 represents an enormous opportunity to finally silence the guns. The people don't understand this process fully, but they are hopeful. They are searching for even the smallest ray of light at the end of the tunnel," he said.
There was little visible evidence on Wednesday of movement by the fighters, who are accustomed to moving furtively, but they were likely to be closely tracked by security forces with drones and other surveillance equipment.
Pro-Kurdish politicians were in border villages in the mainly Kurdish southeast to monitor the pullout, which was due to take several months. The first fighters were expected to arrive in Iraq within a week.
Erdogan criticized the announcement of a timetable for a PKK withdrawal, reiterating a call for them to disarm before leaving. The PKK rejected this, fearing they could come under attack, as they did in a previous pullback.
"The main issue is to lay down weapons and just withdraw (from Turkey). They surely know the routes from which they have entered Turkey and can use the same routes to leave," Erdogan told reporters on Tuesday.
Karayilan has warned that PKK fighters will retaliate if the Turkish army launches any kind of operation against them.
The rebels are expected to move in groups of around half a dozen in a process expected to take several months, monitored on the Turkish side by the MIT intelligence agency and across the border by the Kurdish regional government of northern Iraq.
Mayor Tore said Semdinli residents were unnerved by the construction in recent months of new military outposts in the area, fearing the state was digging in for a longer war.
Incomes in the area are about half of those in western Turkey but exceed those of neighboring towns due to a thriving business smuggling fuel, household goods and food from Iran and Iraq, Tore said.
Its population has grown fourfold since 1984 to 20,000 people as villagers fled their homes to escape fighting between Turkey and the PKK.
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