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Kurds start to pull out from Turkey

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PKK fighters in Turkey close to the border with Iraq (AP)

PKK fighters in Turkey close to the border with Iraq (AP)

AP

PKK fighters in Turkey close to the border with Iraq (AP)

Kurdish rebels have started their gradual retreat from Turkey to bases in northern Iraq, starting a key stage in the peace process with the Turkish government aimed at ending one of the world's bloodiest insurgencies.

The Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, declared a cease-fire in March and agreed to withdraw guerrilla fighters from the Turkish territory, heeding a call from its imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan, who is engaged in talks with Turkey to end a nearly 30-year battle that has cost tens of thousands of lives.

The group, which has sought greater autonomy and more rights for Turkey's Kurds, has, however, rejected a Turkish government demand that they lay down arms before leaving the Turkish territory. The PKK's commander, Murat Karayilan, has said that the group will not disarm until Turkey enacts democratic reforms increasing the rights of Kurds and introduces an amnesty for all imprisoned rebels, including Ocalan.

Gultan Kisinak, a joint leader of a major pro-Kurdish political party in Turkey, said a first group of rebel fighters started their advance toward the border with Iraq on Wednesday.

"According to the information we have received, the movement has started," she said.

"This is a historic process and a historic day," said Pervin Buldan, a legislator from Kisanak's party who is involved in the peace negotiations. "It is a day when ... a conflict-ridden process is ending and a new process is beginning."

The PKK, considered a terror organization by Turkey and its Western allies, is believed to have between 1,500 and 2,000 fighters inside Turkey, in addition to several thousand more based in northern Iraq. The full withdrawal of forces is expected to take several months. The group has long used the northern Iraqi territory as a springboard for attacks in Turkey.

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The rebels have complained about "provocative" acts by Turkey - including the continued construction of military border posts, reconnaissance flights by unmanned drones and the mobilisation of troops in Turkey's mainly Kurdish south east region - but said they would nevertheless press ahead with the withdrawal.

The PKK planned to first pull out rebels fighters based furthest away from the border, allowing those nearer the border to keep watch and ensure their secure passage.

Ozturk Turkdogan, the head of Turkey's independent Human Rights Association, who has been charged with overseeing the withdrawal, said the rebels would leave by foot. Members of his group will monitor areas near the border to make sure there is no Turkish military activity as the PKK withdraws.


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