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Road from Turkey will be long and arduous, rebels warn

The Kurdistan Workers' Party wants guarantees that the police, the judiciary and the military will not interfere with the withdrawal of its fighters. Thomas Seibert reports from Istanbul

A Kurd celebrates Nowruz, the Persian New Year festival, with a flag bearing a portrait of jailed Kurdish rebel chief Abdullah Ocalan in the southern Turkish city of Diyarbakir.
A Kurd celebrates Nowruz, the Persian New Year festival, with a flag bearing a portrait of jailed Kurdish rebel chief Abdullah Ocalan in the southern Turkish city of Diyarbakir.

ISTANBUL // The withdrawal of Kurdish rebels from Turkey after a historic ceasefire call by their jailed leader will be a long and arduous effort, a leading rebel commander has warned.

Last week, Abdullah Ocalan, the founder and leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), called on his fighters to end their armed struggle against security forces and leave Turkey. Ocalan, who has been in prison since his capture in 1999, has been negotiating with Turkish officials since late last year in a bid to end close to 30 years of conflict between Kurds and the Turkish state.

Murat Karayilan, the de-facto leader of the PKK in Ocalan's absence, said that the PKK had stopped armed action as of March 23, two days after Ocalan's appeal. He did not offer a timetable.

In an interview published on Sunday, Mr Karayilan added that the rebels reserved the right to self-defence and "revenge" if attacked and that the withdrawal demanded by Ocalan was at least six months away.

Turkey's legal Kurdish party, the Party for Peace and Democracy (BDP), says a withdrawal of PKK fighters could be completed by August.

But Mr Karayilan said Turkey's parliament should first create a legal framework to ensure that withdrawing PKK members did not have to fear arrest. PKK membership is illegal in Turkey, and the law says only PKK members who give themselves up to the authorities and have not been involved in acts of violence can benefit from amnesty rules. But the PKK wants guarantees that the police, the judiciary and the military will not interfere with the withdrawal of its fighters.

Mr Karayilan added that Ankara should also make communication between Ocalan and the rest of the PKK leadership easier and create a commission of about 30 "wise men", independent experts and academics, which the Turkish government wants to convene, to act as an independent monitor of the withdrawal of the estimated 1,500 rebel fighters.

"However quickly we act, we think the withdrawal will be left until autumn," Mr Karayilan told the T24 news portal. He said the wise men should monitor the PKK's withdrawal to northern Iraq and "solve problems that could arise".

Mr Karayilan's conditions for the withdrawal are signs of a deep lack of trust between Turkey and the rebels, Mithat Sancar, a professor of constitutional law at Ankara University and an expert on the Kurdish conflict, said yesterday.

"They are two sides who have spent decades fighting each other," he said. Mr Karayilan was also probably trying to get the government to commit to political reforms, he said. The PKK and Kurdish politicians are calling for constitutional guarantees of the political and cultural rights of Turkey's estimated 12 million Kurds.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, said last weekend he was open to discussions about a legal arrangement by Turkey's parliament to guarantee safe passage to PKK units. Mr Erdogan has also given repeated assurances to the PKK that Turkey's military would not attack withdrawing rebels.

No fighting between the military and the rebels has been reported since Ocalan's ceasefire call, and the Turkish Vatan newspaper said yesterday that the Turkish military would not send reinforcements to the Kurdish region this spring.

But the ANF news agency, a PKK advocate, reported yesterday that Turkish fighter jets and military drones had flown reconnaissance missions over PKK positions in northern Iraq. There was no comment from the military.

Mr Karayilan said his fighters were reluctant to leave their positions for the long trek towards the Iraqi borders without official reassurances by the Turkish side.

"This is not an easy thing at all," he said. "These people have given up their lives and moved to the mountains. Now it is very important to convince them with respect to the withdrawal."

The government in Ankara says it is working on plans to establish the wise men council that could contribute to the peace process, but the role of the body has not been defined.

Professor Sancar, who has been named as a potential member, said the council could play the part of a "referee, facilitator or mediator" between Turks and Kurds. It could also discuss further steps, such as a creation of a court-like restorative justice body, like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa.

tseibert@thenational.ae

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