News / Middle East

PKK Sets Date for Withdrawal From Turkey

Murat Karayilan, acting military commander of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), speaks during an interview with Reuters at the Qandil mountains near the Iraq-Turkish border in Sulaimaniya, 330 km (205 miles) northeast of Baghdad, Mar. 24, 2013.
Murat Karayilan, acting military commander of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), speaks during an interview with Reuters at the Qandil mountains near the Iraq-Turkish border in Sulaimaniya, 330 km (205 miles) northeast of Baghdad, Mar. 24, 2013.
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Dorian Jones
— The military leader of the Kurdish rebel group the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, has announced his forces will soon start leaving Turkey. The announcement is part of ongoing peace efforts between Ankara and the Kurdish rebel group.

The military head of the PKK, Murat Karayilan, said that his forces would start to leave Turkey in early May.

The announcement was made during a press conference at a rebel mountain hideout in neighboring Iraq, where many of the PKK are based. The withdrawal of the estimated 2,000 fighters is expected to take several months.

Kadri Gursel, a columnist for the Turkish newspaper Milliyet, says the government will be under pressure to act during this withdrawal.

"It is the first major step of the peace process. It will last until the end of the autumn. And, during this long period of time, I think we need reciprocity from the government, some steps in return, at least in the field of confidence building, because there will be no unilateral solution," said Gursel.

The PKK took up arms in 1984, fighting for greater minority rights and local autonomy. The conflict has claimed more than 40,000 lives and displaced over a million people.

Many of the rebels' demands could be met by a new constitution, which the Turkish parliament is currently drafting.

But  U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, in a statement released Thursday, stressed the need for immediate steps to be taken to maintain the momentum of the peace process.

Emma Sinclair-Webb, the group's representative in Turkey, says there's an urgent need to address the jailing of Kurdish activists.

"At the moment, we are talking about into the thousands in prison for terrorism offenses, and we know that very well many of those people have not committed any activities that could or should be described as terrorism,"she said. "They are simply held in prison almost as a form political internment and that is something that needs to be remedied fast."

The Turkish government has been facing growing criticism from Turkish nationalists.  This week, police used tear gas and water cannons to break up clashes between Kurdish and nationalist students at an Ankara university campus.

Sinan Ulgen, head of the Istanbul-based research institute Edam, says it is important that expectations are carefully managed by both sides.

"The gap with regards to expectations is starting to build. On the one hand, the Turkish side is looking at this process with a number of doubts regarding what the government has promised to the Kurds," Ulgen said. "On the Kurdish side as well, there still might be a number of areas that the government is ready to accept, but falls short of the expectations. So overall one of the most challenging tasks of both the Turkish and Kurdish leadership will be to manage the expectations from the standpoint of their constituents."

According to recent opinion polls, a majority of Kurds and Turks support the current peace efforts. Observers say such support is giving a powerful political momentum to the peace process.

A successful and peaceful withdrawal of the PKK rebels from Turkey will give further impetus to the process, say columnist Gursel. But he says such a withdrawal does not mean the end of the PKK as a military or political force.

"The PKK is the biggest non-state actor in the region," he said. "They actively engaged in four countries which have Kurdish populations, which are Iran, Turkey, Iraq and Syria. They can transfer their forces from one country to another. They have their popular base there. They can recruit militant and guerrilla activists from these four countries. So the PKK has become a real Middle Eastern actor."

Though there is much support for the peace efforts, huge obstacles to brokering a deal remain. One issue highlighting that complexity is the future of senior PKK operatives, many of whom have expressed interest in trading in their guns for political representation - something many Turks find impossible to accept.

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