— Members of the Kurdish rebel group the PKK have started withdrawing from Turkey into neighboring Iraq. The move is being seen as a crucial step in the peace process but both sides are voicing concerns over the withdrawal process.
The withdrawal of the estimated 1,500 to 2,000 fighters is part of ongoing peace efforts to end the nearly three-decades-long fighting with the Turkish state. The spokesman and deputy head of the ruling AK party, Huseyin Celik, said in a press statement Wednesday that the withdrawal is the latest positive development in peace efforts.
The fact that fingers are lifted off the triggers, that the guns are now silent and the bombs are no longer exploding is a first step, and this is important, he said.
However, disarming the PKK is a priority of the government, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday reiterated his call for the withdrawing rebels to lay down their arms before leaving the country.
The PKK has refused to disarm its withdrawing forces. PKK military leader Murat Karayilan voiced concern over what he claims is an increase in Turkish military activity and, in particular, the presence of the unmanned drones in the region from which they are withdrawing.
In 1999, the last time the PKK withdrew its forces from Turkey, it suffered heavy losses at the hands of the Turkish army. The co-leader of the pro-Kurdish BDP, Gultan Kisanak, expressed concern over the latest withdrawal.
Recalling the PKK withdrawal in 1999, she said that "we will hold the government responsible for any military operation." She added that disarmament will "only come as part of a political process."
Prime Minister Erdogan has promised that PKK rebels will not be attacked while they withdraw. But he also said the risk of confrontation would be minimized if the rebels were unarmed.
Thus far there have been no formal negotiations between the PKK and the Turkish government. The current withdrawal is the result of informal talks between the head of Turkish intelligence, Hakan Fidan, and the imprisoned PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan.
Kadri Gursel, a columnist for the Turkish newspaper Milliyet who is an expert on the Kurdish conflict, says expectations for government concessions will grow during the withdrawal.
"The expectation of the PKK will be to see major steps being taken in solving the Kurdish problem. If Turkey will be reluctant to take these steps, this will be a looming menace over Turkey. But the process itself has gained its own independent momentum and dynamic right now. And those who will impede this process will bear a major responsibility and pay a price," he said.
Prime Minister Erdogan has ruled out any formal negotiations with or concessions to the PKK before its forces withdraw from Turkey. Now that the withdrawal has started, Turkey is likely to feel more pressure to take steps to meet Kurdish demands. Both the PKK and political Kurdish leaders are calling for release of thousands activists from jail, as well as political and cultural reforms.
Turkish government spokesman Huseyin Celik said Wednesday that Ankara would inject more "oxygen" into the peace process.