Kurdish rebels announced on Thursday they would on May 8 begin withdrawing from Turkey into their safe haven in northern Iraq amid a peace drive between Ankara and the rebel movement.
But the armed group warned Turkey’s powerful military against “provocations” which would see the end of the pledged withdrawal by outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighters.
“As part of ongoing preparations, the withdrawal will begin on May 8, 2013,” PKK leader Murat Karayilan was quoted as saying by the pro-Kurdish Firat news agency.
“The withdrawal is planned in phases … and is aimed to be finalised as soon as possible,” he said without providing any exact timetable.
But the PKK leader also urged the Turkish army “to act with the same sensitivity and seriousness.”
“Our forces will use their right to retaliate in the event of an attack, operation or bombing against our withdrawing guerrilla forces and the withdrawal will immediately stop,” Karayilan warned.
Previous attempts at ending the insurgency were crippled after splinter groups within the PKK torpedoed peace efforts or Ankara backtracked because of opposition from nationalist groups.
The Turkish government does not provide any data about the number of PKK militants based in Turkey but there are an estimated 2,000 inside Turkey and up to 5,000 in northern Iraq.
The PKK’s retreat from Turkey is a source of controversy as the government strictly called on the rebel group to “bury their weapons” and leave the country.
The rebel statement did not make any mention how the retreat would take place but hinted that weapons would be close at hand for defensive purposes.
The PKK leader said observers could monitor the gradual withdrawal process, which is expected to take several months.
Karayilan said permanent peace would be reached in three phases and withdrawal would only be the first.
The highly-publicised announcement — which was widely covered by the Turkish media in Qandil Mountain, the PKK headquarters in northern Iraq — comes after the PKK’s jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan ordered on March 21 a historic ceasefire.
The plans emerged following several letter exchanges between the PKK command and Ocalan, who wrote the letters after months of clandestine negotiations with the Turkish intelligence agency with an ultimate goal of disarming the rebel group.
The PKK, blacklisted as a terrorist group by Turkey and much of the international community, started an armed rebellion for self-rule in the Kurdish-majority southeast in 1984, which has cost around 45,000 lives.
Karayilan said that the government would be expected to “do its part” in the second stage and take steps to democratise Turkey and abolish “special war structures,” meaning special teams fighting the rebels.
“The conditions for a solution to the Kurdish issue … will be there after reforms are made in the framework of a constitutional solution,” he added.
A permanent peace is likely to be reached in return for wider constitutional rights for the up to 15 million Kurds, who roughly constitute 20 percent of Turkey’s 75 million people.
The third phase would be “normalisation,” Karayilan added, referring to permanent peace and an environment of “freedom and equality.”
He said a solution to Turkey’s Kurdish problem would herald the beginning of a “new era” which could even lead to peace for Kurdish populations elsewhere.
Turkey is believed to be home to the largest single community of ethnic Kurds out of a total population of between 25 and 35 million scattered across Iraq, Iran and Syria.