SEMDINLI, TURKEY— Kurdish militants began their withdrawal from Turkey on Wednesday, a pro-Kurdish party leader told Reuters, advancing a peace process designed to end an insurgency which has killed 40,000 people and ravaged the region.
Turkish security forces manned checkpoints along the mountainous border with Iraq, keeping up their guard as the agreed pullout started by the first small groups of some 2,000 Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fighters.
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 to end 30 years of conflict.
The PKK has accused the army of endangering the pullout with reconnaissance drones and troop movements they said may trigger clashes. But there was no sign of military activity in the grey skies over southeast Turkey.
"I can say the withdrawal began today based on the information we have,'' Peace and Democracy Party [BDP] co-leader Gultan Kisanak said. "Local sources report that the armed PKK militants are on the move.''
Security sources did not confirm the withdrawal. Fighters are accustomed to moving furtively and are expected to move in groups of around half a dozen in a process likely to take several months.
"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.
The withdrawal will be monitored on the Turkish side by the MIT intelligence agency
The first fighters were expected to arrive in Iraq within a week.
But a PKK commander for the Semdinli area told a local source that guerrillas were unable to cross into Iraq because of increased security, including new checkpoints and soldiers deployed on mountainsides.
On the narrow road to Semdinli, where the PKK launched their insurgency with an attack on August 15, 1984, soldiers and police appeared to be mostly waving regular traffic through.
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.
"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.
Erdogan reiterated a call for the rebels to disarm before leaving. The PKK has rejected this, fearing they could come under attack, as they did in a previous pullback.
"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.
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 neighbouring 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.