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Kurdish rebels begin critical pullout from Turkey

A Kurdish man holds a flag of the PKK and flashes V-signs at a Persian New Year event on March 17, 2013 in Istanbul
A Kurdish man holds a flag of the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) and flashes V-signs during celebrations on March 17, 2013 of Nowruz, the Persian New Year festival, in Kazlicesme, Istanbul. Kurdish rebels began withdrawing from Turkey into their stronghold i

Kurdish rebels have begun withdrawing from Turkey into their stronghold in northern Iraq, a pro-Kurdish lawmaker said on Wednesday, in a major step towards ending a decades-long conflict that has left tens of thousands of people dead.

The pullout is the first visible sign that months of fragile talks between the state and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) could succeed in ending 29 years of guerrilla war.

"We know that they have started moving," Selahattin Demirtas, a pro-Kurdish lawmaker actively involved in the process, told AFP.

About 2,000 rebel fighters are expected to begin leaving Turkey on foot, travelling through the mountainous border zone to reach their safe havens in the inhospitable Qandil mountains in northern Iraq.

Pro-Kurdish lawmaker Selahattin Demirtas gives a press conference at the Atakoy Marina in Istanbul on March 18, 2013
Pro-Kurdish lawmaker Selahattin Demirtas gives a press conference at the Atakoy Marina in Istanbul on March 18, 2013.

There they will join 5,000 fellow militants at the command base which has been used as a springboard for attacks against Turkish security forces.

Ankara did not confirm the start of the pullout but Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said: "We are following the process closely.

"It is hard to say with precision what is happening at what time," Arinc said in televised remarks. "What matters to us is the result, and it looks like we are getting there."

The withdrawals are expected to take three to four months, with several media outlets reporting that the rebels have been on the move for weeks and that May 8 is a "symbolic" date of departure.

"They prefer to move at night and stay out of sight in daytime," to avoid tensions as well as publicity that might jeopardise their security, Demirtas said.

Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) rebels talk  on April 25, 2013 in the Qandil mountain, the PKK headquarters in Iraq
Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) rebels talk on April 25, 2013 in the Qandil mountain, the PKK headquarters in northern Iraq.

On Tuesday, the rebels said they would not renege on their promise to withdraw following an order from jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, onetime nemesis of the Turkish state.

Ocalan, known as "Apo" or uncle to Kurds but branded a "baby killer" by Turks, called in March for a historic ceasefire after months of clandestine peace talks with Turkish security services.

But even if his supporters have agreed to the pullout, the fighters have yet to lay down their arms as the delicate process begins.

Rebels on Tuesday complained that Ankara was boosting troop numbers and carrying out surveillance flights at the border, saying the moves were "delaying the peace process" and paving the way for "provocations and clashes".

The Turkish army has not confirmed the measures but said its "fight against any terrorism continues", although no fatal clashes have occurred in recent months, the first such lull in years.

Acting PKK leader Murat Karayilan warned last month that the fighters would would strike back and the withdrawal would halt "immediately" if they were attacked.

"We have no doubt about the state but fear provocation from dark forces," Demirtas said, referring to the possibility of ambushes by splinter paramilitary groups which may not be in favour of the peace process.

Mass withdrawals in 1999 were disrupted when Turkish forces ambushed departing rebels, killing around 500 people and wrecking hopes for a permanent peace.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly vowed that retreating rebels "will not be touched".

He said Tuesday that "laying down weapons" should be the top priority for the PKK, which is blacklisted as a terrorist group by Ankara and the West.

Karayilan said in April that the PKK was expecting Ankara to "do its part" before giving up their weapons, and called for wider constitutional rights for Turkey's Kurds, who make up around 20 percent of the 75 million population.

A permanent peace could transform Turkey's impoverished Kurdish-majority southeast, where investment has remained scarce and infrastructure insufficient due to the threat of clashes.

It will also impact Erdogan's political future, after he braved a major nationalist backlash in revealing the negotiations with Ocalan.

Millions of Kurds are expecting Ocalan, whose death sentence was commuted to life in prison in 2002 after European Union pressure, to be pardoned and join political life.

Ocalan said in his March peace call that a ceasefire would be the beginning of a "new era" for the Kurdish movement.

"It is not the time to give up the struggle, but to start a different one," Ocalan said.

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