ANKARA, Turkey – Kurdish rebels reaffirmed on Tuesday that they will start withdrawing guerrilla fighters from Turkey to bases in northern Iraq this week.
The Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, declared a cease-fire in March and promised to gradually pull fighters out of Turkey as part of peace talks aimed at ending a nearly three-decade-old conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people. The group has been fighting Turkey for autonomy for Kurds in southeastern Turkey.
The declaration fell short of Turkey's expectations which had insisted that the rebels retreat unarmed, laying down arms before they leave the Turkish territory. The rebels have also set conditions for peace with Turkey that include democratic reforms to increase the rights of Kurds and an amnesty for all imprisoned rebels, including jailed rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan.
A rebel statement, carried by the pro-Kurdish Firat News agency on Tuesday confirmed that "a first group" of fighters will leave Turkey on Wednesday and be settled in bases in northern Iraq within a week. The group said it was pressing ahead with its decision to withdraw despite what it called "provocative" acts by Turkey, including the construction of military border posts, reconnaissance flights by unmanned drones and the mobilization of troops in Turkey's mainly Kurdish southeast region.
The statement did not say how many fighters would start withdrawing on Wednesday or when the pullout will be completed. Selahattin Demirtas, leader of a pro-Kurdish political party, said the full withdrawal of forces could take three to four months.
The PKK, which frequently launched attacks on Turkey from bases in northern Iraq, is designated a terrorist organization by Turkey and its Western allies. The Turkish government estimates that between 1,500 and 2,000 of the rebels operate from inside Turkey.
The PKK has said the rebels will pull out of Turkey through usual routes they use to slip into the country from Iraq. Both Turkey and the PKK have said the withdrawal will take place quietly and without fanfare.