ISTANBUL — The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the main Kurdish rebel group in Turkey, said Thursday that it would withdraw all of its forces from the country by May 8 as part of a peace agreement to end a 30-year conflict with the Turkish state.
Speaking at a rare news conference at the group’s base in the Qandil mountains of neighboring Iraq, Murat Karayilan, the commander of the group, known by its Turkish acronym PKK, called on the Turkish army not to launch attacks during the rebels’ gradual withdrawal into northern Iraq. Any such confrontation will end the PKK’s cease-fire, he said. Karayilan, in a statement read in Turkish and summarized in English, outlined the process by which the PKK expected the government to meet its end of the bargain, by giving the Kurds further democratic rights under a new constitution and releasing Kurdish prisoners, including the PKK’s highly influential primary founder, Abdullah Ocalan. However, he refused demands by the Turkish government that rebels disarm before leaving the country and said his militants would carry weapons strictly for self-defense. He also suggested that foreign observers monitor the withdrawal for any misconduct on either side, reported NTV, a private TV network.
Many analysts agree that despite the PKK’s announcement, the peace process is fragile and still at risk of disruption by opposing groups inside the PKK and Turkish nationalist circles. In a recent interview, Karayilan himself was defiant, emphasizing his rebels’ eagerness to fight. Three female Kurdish political activists were killed in Paris a few weeks after talks started in January, an attack many analysts said was aimed at intimidating the negotiating parties.
Over the decades, a military solution had eluded the government despite the military might of Turkey, with the second-largest army in the NATO alliance, and early this year, the ruling Justice and Development Party decided to cash in on its popularity to force a political resolution.
“It is highly hopeful that the will of the PKK, the will of the government and the will of the people join for the first time for a common cause, to end a 30-year-old conflict,” Numan Kurtulmus, deputy chairman of the party, said on NTV. “The first step has been made, so we hope the process would be finalized without any acts of provocation.”
Many analysts agree that the government’s success in resolving the conflict will win the already popular prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, even greater acclaim, which could then allow him to replace Turkey’s parliamentary system with a strong-president system of some kind.
After the government made Ocalan, the sole political authority of the PKK, a party to the talks, he communicated with his rebels from a fortresslike prison on an island in western Turkey in March, calling off the armed struggle.